In a speech yesterday in Northern Virginia, President Obama said this:
So what we've said is we're going to put more money into higher education and through K-12—but here's the catch—the money is only going to those communities that are serious about reforming their education system so they work well. Because it's—education is not just a matter of putting more money into it. You also have to make sure that we've got the best teachers, that we've got accountability, that the way we're designing our schools help our kids actually succeed over the long term, especially in areas of math and science, where we're lagging even further behind than we were a generation ago.
Sounds good! Except for the part where it's a bunch of hooey.
The president is probably referring to the Race to the Top program here. It's not a bad program. It's a pot of money that is being carefully, slowly dispersed to states that submit detailed specs on their plans for education reform. Most of the awards are measured in tens or hundreds of millions. The program is slated to distribute $4.35 billion, and the mere existence of some money tied to reform has spurred some modest changes. Nothing huge, mind you. But to position themselves to compete for the money, several states have relaxed caps on the number of allowable charter schools, for instance. He might also be thinking of the $400 million Teacher Incentive Fund, which is designed to increase pay for successful teachers.
However, those figures are dwarfed by the no-strings-attached, status-quo-preserving pallets for federal dollars that the feds have gotten into the habit of periodically airlifting to the states. Just to cite the most recent example, last month Congress passed a bill that includes $10 billion to preserve teachers' jobs.
For every carefully considered dollar distributed to encourage reform, the feds undermined that message in a single stroke last month with two bucks that signal to states that they should hang in there, keep doing what they're doing, and whatever happens don't take the occasion of a budget crunch to rethink the way money is spent on education in this country. And that's just the latest in a serious of ed money infusions, including a massive chunk of the stimulus cash, which have recently gone to teacher job preservation and other measures to prop up state education budgets. (Of course, last month's $10 billion was an additional appropriation, thrown out on top of the usual tens of billions in federal K-12 education spending which remains largely untethered to reforms of any kind.)
The Reason Foundation's Lisa Snell wrote all about the repeated triumph of the status quo in our May issue.