Obama’s Education Spending Frenzy

After the administration’s first year, it’s status quo 20, reform 1.

A year after coming into office with promises to shake up the way public education is managed in this country, how have Barack Obama and his highly regarded education secretary, Arne Duncan, performed?

Judging by their own words, brilliantly. Obama and Duncan have been praised for taking on teachers unions and encouraging states to tackle real education reform through the Race to the Top program of competitive grants. Race to the Top induces states to compete for $4.3 billion in stimulus money (about 5 percent of the dollars appropriated to education by the February 2009 stimulus package) by lifting the cap on charter schools, linking teacher evaluations to student achievement, pledging to embrace national standards, and turning around low-performing schools. In The Washington Post last July, Duncan called Race to the Top “education reform’s moon shot.”

While Race to the Top includes some steps in the right direction, having a few states tweak their laws to allow more charter schools and to better measure teacher performance isn’t exactly on par with sending men into space. It’s even less impressive in the context of the billions of new dollars that the Obama administration has spent to support and enhance the education status quo. Judged as a whole, the Obama/Duncan education program has been more about massive amounts of new spending than anything like real education reform.

The stimulus package allocated $100 billion to public education. This unprecedented federal funding, nearly twice the Department of Education’s annual budget, was touted as a vehicle for transforming public education rather than doubling down on a failed system. But most of the $69 billion released as of this writing has gone to backfill state education budgets and maintain teaching jobs. 

In the last three months of 2009, according to the administration, the stimulus funded the jobs of more than 329,000 teachers, counselors, and librarians. According to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, “those teachers would have been gone if it hadn’t been for the stimulus money.” In other words, rather than reorganizing poorly performing schools the stimulus allowed states like California to carry on with their unsustainable education budgets. It also protected local school districts from grappling with serious structural budget issues such as untenable pension obligations. Rather than reducing benefits or requiring greater employee contributions, California school districts with multimillion-dollar budget deficits continue propping up a teacher retirement system that is running a $48 billion shortfall. The education portion of the stimulus essentially has replaced state education spending, allowing states to shift money to other areas rather than solving their structural budget problems.

And the Obama administration’s education spending frenzy goes beyond the stimulus. His fiscal year 2011 budget proposal includes a 6.2 percent increase in education dollars, despite his plan to freeze overall domestic spending beginning in fiscal year 2011. The budget does allocate some of the money to competitive grants and reforms such as charter schools. But instead of cutting the Education Department’s huge old programs (such as $14.5 billion in Title I transfers to schools serving lower-income students) and redirecting the money to reflect the department’s new priorities, the budget just adds billions of dollars for new initiatives.

Obama promised to show fiscal restraint and reward “evidence-based” education programs that work. Yet his 2011 budget gives the early education program Head Start an increase of $989 million, even after a January 2010 gold-standard study by the Department of Health and Human Services once again confirmed that Head Start does not offer disadvantaged students any advantage. (See “Head Start Fail,” page 13.) He also proposed a new $9.3 billion Early Learning Challenge Grant program to encourage states to invest in state-run universal preschool.

The administration has proposed billions in new funding for higher education as well. Under the proposed 2011 budget, the maximum for Pell Grants would increase by $160 to $5,710 and automatically rise by the rate of inflation plus one percentage point annually for the next decade. The budget also includes a $10.6 billion American Graduation Initiative to improve and modernize community colleges and a $3.5 billion College Access and Completion Fund. The bottom line will be ever-rising college costs caused by the influx of more “free” taxpayer money, which effectively increases demand and drives up prices. The College Board reports that tuition costs at public colleges increased 20 percent in the last five years, compared to 15 percent at private colleges. Yet college students are paying less “net tuition” today than they did in 2004 because of government grants. While the overall cost of college is rising, government aid is shielding students from shouldering the burden. College will continue to become more expensive, prompting more calls for government-backed loans and other federal aid for young people who cannot afford college, which in turn will contribute further to rising costs. Rinse and repeat.

The Obama administration gave an early signal of the direction it would take in education when it went along with the gratuitous 2009 elimination of D.C.’s inexpensive but highly effective Opportunity Scholarship Program. The administration had promised to support evidence-based reform. Yet it refused to fund a voucher program that cost far less than 1 percent of Race to the Top, despite the federal government’s own gold-standard study that found participating students had gained five months in reading achievement. The president’s decision to stop more than 1,000 families from choosing higher-quality private schools (as his own children do), and instead force them back to the failing D.C. public schools they had escaped, turned out to be an accurate reflection of his commitment to reform. 

Lisa Snell (lsnell@reason.org) is director of education at the Reason Foundation.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I was skimming through Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope" in the bookstore the other day when I read, "There is no reason that every teacher in this country isn't paid 100,000 dollars a year." Oh, I can think of plenty of reasons. Also, he plans to justify this by raising the standard for teachers so that every teacher would have to get a master's degree. Both my parents are teachers, and I like to call this "the education two step."

    Step one:

    Claim that, "the children are our future" and demand more money for public education, primarily teacher salaries to "attract the best talent."

    Public reaction:

    If we are going to pay more money, we need to see results.

    Step two:

    The government says, "Okay, we'll demand that all teachers get a higher degree, attend more trainings (paid of course), and pass more certifications.

    Result:

    Teachers are now required to pass a calculus test just to teach anything in High School in Fort Worth ISD. Teachers spend several days and even weeks a year in special trainings. Colleges are fed a sudden influx of students, keeping the credentialist system alive, budgets are busted nationwide, and test scores see no increase.

    It's a never ending jobs,credentialism, and bullshit program. And it'll never be enough.

  • Jeffersonian||

    A hundred large for a 7-hour-per-day, nine-month-per-year job, with two weeks at Christmas and another in the spring. And all you need is a guy-level BA that anyone with a pulse can get.

  • Cindy||

    There's several hours of prep time after school, so it is more like a 10-12 hour day.

  • Chris||

    Very true. Though I'm not one to say that teachers are grossly underpaid, as liberals are wont to do regardless of salary, to mistake what we see teachers doing and what they actually do is a gross one, especially at the college level.

  • Lou||

    Probably true

  • ||

    Not true.

  • Jeffersonian||

    Sorry, Cindy, I'm married to one. If there's an addition hour in there, it's a lot. And she's a very dedicated teacher.

  • ||

    There's also periods off during the day, when most of the prep gets done, so I'm not buying this "several hours a day" thing.

    The typical school day is, what, 8 - 3? With a half hour for lunch? So that leaves a couple of hours after school of prep time before they even get to a normal workweek.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    Ahh, but they were the largest donor to the Democratic party in 2008.

    Those Dems, ya gotta love 'em.

  • ||

    The typical school day is, what, 8 - 3? With a half hour for lunch? So that leaves a couple of hours after school of prep time before they even get to a normal workweek.

    My sister gets a paid "planning hour" every day. If she has to sit with kids in detention during this time, she gets paid extra.

    When I found this out I said "then you are not a salaried employee." and of course she replied "yes I am", even though she had basically just discussed filling out her time sheet.

    If you send your children to public school, you must hate them.

  • ||

    And planning periods.

  • zoltan||

    RC, I went to school in Fort Worth, TX and teachers had one period off each day. And one period was 90 minutes long (4 periods a day). So yeah, those teachers got a lot of off time.

  • ||

    Bullshit. Both my parents are teachers, in a non union district, in TEXAS! They never worked a ten to twelve hour day.

  • ||

    Ha ha ha. Love that one. Why not a 24/7 job?

    After the first year, how much "prep time" doe it take to get ready to teach fractions (using you understand fractions)?

  • Lou||

    Don't forget the 15 sick days that carry over per year to a max of 180, great health insurance, a pension equal to 60%+ of final salary for life, and great job security. Many teachers get more than 100,000 after some time. Yeah, and they complain non-stop.

  • Lou||

    Compared to a private sector job with < 100K after years, 10+ hours per day, 5 sick days two weeks vacation, lousy expensive health insurance, no security and a 401K.

  • mew||

    I would like to know where "many teachers get more than 100,000." In ND (yes I know we are among the lowest in pay) a teacher with 15 yrs. experience and a doctorate makes about 65k in our highest paying district. Those credentials and that salary in the private sector would be considered grossly underpaid. I rarely put in less than 8 hour days, and never have a weekend without papers to correct or lessons to prepare for the following week. During the summer I am taking classes paid for out of my pocket to keep up my licence and learn to be a better teacher, as well as planning my curriculum for the following year. As for the two week vacation at Christmas - that's when I have my students research papers due so that I have more time to correct them. Teaching is not nearly as easy as people on the outside think it is. Most likely that could be said for many careers - the grass is always greener. If teaching is such a lucrative and easy job, why are there teacher shortages in so many areas?

  • ||

    My entire point was that teaching is needlessly complex for teachers, and needlessly expensive for tax payers. You don't just get a certain amount of pay for having a degree in the private sector.

    Also, you're not including other benefits and paid stipends. I never said that teachers get paid over a 100,000 a year. That's what Obama said that they "should" make.

  • mew||

    "teaching is needlessly complex for teachers, and needlessly expensive for tax payers" I completely agree - what government-run program isn't? I would love to teach in a private school, and I wish there were more of them. The students who attend private schools come from homes with parents who actually care about their children getting a quality education. We have entirely too many parents who look at school as six hours of free daycare and two meals a day.

  • ||

    You also aren't including the orgasmic pensions and health benefits that teachers receive. Plus job security that nobody in the private sector receives. My step mom doesn't have a master's degree, and she is already making about 80 grand a year, when benefits are included. Yes, I would say that she receives 20,000 a year in benefits. Texas is not a highly paid district either.

  • zoltan||

    FWISD: Full-time first year teachers earn a minimum of $46,570

  • ||

    FWIWD: The work year consists of merely 180 days. $259/day. $32/hr. Three months vacation and the best bennies in the business. Not exactly hash.

  • mew||

    These pensions that everyone is screaming about are our money! Seven percent is taken out of my check (no, I cannot opt out), matched by my school district, and then supposedly invested by the state to fund my teachers retirement. Apparently, however, some states have not been doing such a great job of investing this money, and so now that the funds do not have enough money to pay the retirees, it's all ove the news, and the country is under the assumption that this pension is just awarded to us at retirement like a gold watch, when in fact, it's just like the Social Security system.

  • ||

    Yeah, but you also don't have to contribute to social security. We pay exactly the same amount into SS and Medicare for a fraction of the benefit. So you don't have much of an argument there.

  • mew||

    What do you mean we don't have to contribute to social security? Of course we do. That also comes out of our check and is matched by the school like any other employer. So we have both deductions, and yes, when we retire, for which the age is being raised just like SS and for the same reason, we will draw from both.

  • ||

    Uh, my parents don't pay into social security, they pay for teacher retirement instead. That's why they don't get SS benefits on top of their teacher pension. If you are paying for both, that is just your district. Are you getting SS benefits on top of your pension?

    It's probably different district by district. Either way, you are still far better compensated than anybody else.

  • ||

    What state are you in? In texas, they are social security exempt and get massive pension benefits. They just pay into the teacher retirement system in stead of SS. Some districts give you a little of both.

  • ||

    There are teacher shortages because of the needless certifications.

  • ||

    You are underpaid.

    Where I live, we have driver's ed "teachers" pulling down $150k a year.

    Sorry, I'm tired of being bled by thieving teachers' unions.

  • Dakotian||

    Mew, its ironic I just saw the Fargo teacher pay scale. Next year when I am done student teaching I hope to get a job in Fargo. The $36,000 starting pay is much better than anywhere else in the state.

  • ||

    That sixty percent pension is only if you work for just twenty to thirty years. Fort Worth ISD teachers get 2.3 percent of their FINAL paycheck for every year of employment. If you work just 35 years, from age 25 to 60, you can retire and receive about 80+ percent of your FINAL paycheck till the day that you die. I know people in the private sector who work for thirty years for a company, making about 60 grand a year, who receive no pension whatsoever outside of what they save themselves.

  • dave b.||

    You have a serious set of stones to be seen in public reading Obama's book.

  • Cindy||

    The credentials don't gaurantee, but at least give some indication that teachers are properly certified. I teach.

  • SIV||

    Shouldn't you be slaving over hours of prep work or something? Standardized test don't teach to they own selves.

  • spend spend spend||

    "The credentials don't gaurantee"
     The credentials don't guarantee....

    Do you teach spelling?

  • SIV||

    Most likely

  • ||

    Do you teach spelling?

    What makes you think they teach spelling in public schools?

  • zoltan||

    As a wayward college student I wanted to go into education and teach English, not knowing what else I was capable of. I was paired with a 7th grade English teacher (extremely obese, old and lazy) who tried to teach grammar, such as how to use quotes and comma placement, without getting her fat ass from her desk and using the visual aid of the chalkboard. And this was the "bad student" class. On another note, the education department was home to some of the most moronic, empty-headed but well-intentioned people I've ever met, student and teachers alike.

  • ||

    Yeah, but if all teachers get paid a similar amount whether they are teaching calculus or seventh grade civics. There is no way to separate good teachers from bad. You kind of missed my entire point. In many cases the certifications are simply cover for politicians who are demanding higher pay for teachers so that they can "please" both sides of the issue, sort of.

    A lot of people missed the point of "the education two step." It is a perpetual motion machine of needless complexity for teachers as well as needless cost for tax payers.

  • ||

    FWISD now requires that all highschool teachers pass a calculus certification to teach ANYTHING in high school. Even history. This is needless certification on top of the needless teacher trainings and requirements that really just prop up our technocratic/credentialist college system.

  • ||

    Requiring all teachers to get a Master's degree, when studies show that more credentials have made little difference to test scores, would simply be a job's program for College administrators and professors.

  • zoltan||

    Agreed, tkwelge. Most jobs that just require solid skills in the three Rs and basic common sense and respect now require a Bachelor's degree at minimum.

  • ||

    The obligatory master's degree from the idiot factory "university" is only to move up the pay scale. The ED degree is similar. All it requires is a bit of time and a 95 IQ.

  • Wegie||

    Not spelling....I hope!

  • ||

    Wow, was I first? Or is there a delay. I'll find out soon enough.

  • ||

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    CAPTION

    "And that, kids, is the story of how your mommies and daddies elected the first black president."

  • ||

    The childish grasp of monetary responsibility in this administration is beyond belief. It is absolutely sickening that these irresponsible clowns are trying their best to bankrupt the country and saddle future generations with extremely oppressive debt.

  • Tim||

    They seem to have very little understanding of economics either.

  • Zenmaster, PO1 USN Act||

    They're not very funny clowns either.

  • Comrade Zero 3rd Tech JMC||

    It's all to believable. Especially since few people have any better grasp.

  • Comrade Zero 3rd Tech JMC||

    It's all too believable. Especially since few people have any better grasp.

  • Comrade Zero 3rd Tech JMC||

    dang

  • ||

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  • MNG||

    Show me where in the Constitution federal support of education is authorized!

    Hey, it feels good to get my libertarian crank on sometimes...

  • no one||

    You actually raise a good point: It should be left to the states.

  • ||

    Interstate commerce clause. The education of our kids materially impacts labor markets across state lines.

  • Jeffersonian||

    Saved me the trouble, MNG. Can you point it out?

  • ||

    I've got $5 on "General Welfare Clause".

  • Jordan||

    No doubt. Just to preempt that, here's that extremist, James Madison:

    If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor;
    they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress.... Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America.
  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    I have never read that. Good stuff.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Interstate Commerce Clause. Why the fuck not, everything else comes from there...

  • MNG||

    Taxing and Spending Clause doofuses.

  • Jeffersonian||

    Here's the M-Dog again, callin' yo' white ass out:

    Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. It has been urged and echoed, that the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States, amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction.

    It gets even better. Check out Federalist 41 for the rest of the smackdown.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Well Obama has instituted a spending frenzy on just about everything possible there is to spend money on so it's no surprise that education is included.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    +1

  • ||

    Constitutional or not, Federal and state and local government control and intervention in the education of children is an utter unmitigated failure. That is, if you judge it by comparing the results - billions upon billions spend doing the same things, resulting in increasing inability to master basic literacy and numeracy - to a goal of having children graduating from high school able to read, right and perform mathematical operations at an appropriate level. Come on! Governments cannot educate children any more than they can create jobs. Get government at all levels out of educating kids and let the parents handle it. "Oh, no money!!!"; not enough for all the staff, administrative idiots, counsellors and other non-teachers; not enough for varsity sports teams that are nothing more than basic training for professional sports recruits; not enough for indoctrination and propagandizing the kids. Enough for a teacher with some reference books, chairs and desks for the kids, textbooks approved by the parents not some bureaucrat, trips to see real people doing real things like working for a living, to the library to check out books that tell the good and the bad of American history and the world. Not enough money? Raffle off the crap textbooks your kids got from the public schools - if your schools had any new ones since 1980 - have a bake sale, ask local companies to help so long as they don't get to tell you what your kids learn. Get a website and ask for donations; you'd be surprised how much folks will donate when they don't have to pay school taxes. Rent a building or use your homes on a rotating basis until you can afford it. "Oh, the kids can't get into college!!!" Any college that won't take a kid who can score 1500 or higher on the old SAT isn't one you want your kid to attend; believe me! Besides, your kid may not want college. After seeing the real world of work, he or she may decide to become a court reporter, a truck driver, an oil rig worker, a teacher(!); any one of the million and one jobs that need intelligence, strength, honesty, persistence, but don't need some fake PhD or MBA; remember what "BS" really stands for? No? Watch "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader" sometime when they have a teacher with a Master's degree in "Education" miss all the questions.

    Come on!! Your kids and grandkids deserve better than that nut-house called school. I'm old, grandkids nearly all out of school, kid of course gone from the house... you guys and gals have the kids; grab the bull by the horns and give your kids a chance, a real chance!! yes, we really can.

  • Hockey Guy||

    Obama needs to hire teachers that look like the teacher in Van Halen's "I'm Hot For Teacher" Video. I know I would have attended 1st period more.

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  • Jeffersonian||

    That's going to give Steve Smith one less excuse to be hanging out around the back end of cattle.

  • ||

    I'd be all for teacher bonus pay, if teacher base pay was going down, and if benchmark results couldn't be gamed to give every teach a bonus.

    Unfortunately, neither are true. Base pay will stay where it is and keep going up far faster than inflation, and bonuses are on top of that.

    I also predict pension spiking schemes will become commonplace should bonus pay become widespread.

  • MNG||

    Jeffersonian, the Taxing and Spending clauses are not unlimited grants, they have admittedly generous grants, but they are not unlimited. For example consider drinking age policy: states could reject the fed money that got that to where it is at. The feds could not directly enter that area. Likewise the feds can make money available to the states for education for things they could not simply mandate.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    MNG, when the fedgov takes money from the states, then sets up requirements those same states must meet before getting their money back... that's called blackmail.

  • Comrade Zero||

    No argument here on that but have you ever heard of anyone giving back "free" money? (And please note the sarcasm quotes. I know and you all know that it isn't.)

  • ||

    This country's fiscal problems have one solution. Make it illegal for a member of a public employee union to work for the federal government. Let's the states do what they want. The states with strong public employee unions will go bankrupt, the free states will prosper. Freedom works, if only the people have the guts to fight for it.

    Most of all vote against money for public education. It's a racket. Starve the beast.

  • Wegie||

    All unions should be destroyed.

  • ||

    If teaching is so good, quit your job and come go work with me. We have positions available. I think we start at $28,500. You pay for your own health insurance. We have an English, two maths, and probably a science opening in September.

  • Brian Trust||

    I might teach English if I could pass the calculus test.

  • ||

    It's not the hard test. The education BS test is the one. You have to think like a Marxist to pass....BTW: Teachers in Texas are not union members. We don't have unions. We can be non-renewed at will.

  • ||

    They make as much or more than I do, they have a BA in education and I have a BS in mechanical engineering. That tells you a lot right there. What we need to do is get rid of the teachers who do it because it's a piece of cake degree and you get a total of about 4 months in off time, and keep the ones who do it because they love kids and want to make a difference.

  • ||

    How much are you making Paul? I will make $44,000 with a M.A. and 29 years.

  • Zenmaster||

    Poor performer?

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