Obama's Education Vision Deserves an F


NBC is doing a big education spectacle all this week in NYC outside of Rockefeller Center. President Barack Obama appeared on The Today Show and here's an account:

President Barack Obama says money alone can't solve the problems in America's schools.

Obama says money must be combined with reforms that put the best teachers in classrooms and remove some of the bureaucracy that stands in the way of students' ability to succeed.

Obama says his administration's Race to the Top initiative has been one of the "most powerful tools for reform" in many years. Through the program, states compete for $4 billion in funding by highlighting their plans for reform.

Obama spoke Monday during an interview with NBC's "Today" show.

More here.

This is weak, really weak. For starters, more money is plainly not the issue. Since 1961-62, expenditures per student have more than tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars. Since 1970, they have more than doubled. And yet, since the early 1970s, when the first truly usable data started being collected on educational achievement, schools have not increased student performance. As the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows, scores for 17 year olds are flat as flat can be. We are already spending much more money for the same damn output. Nowhere but K-12 education would we put up with such a self-evidently obvious waste of resources.

And let's not allow Obama's Race to the Top initiative to get off easy. He plunked down $4 billion for reform plans nationally? Whoop-de-do. He trumped that figure by giving $10 billion in no-strings-attached pork to teachers just recently.

What's the alternative to the same-old same-old? How about doing the sorts of things that, first and foremost, would allow parents to exercise something like the choice that the Obamas do in sending their kids to a hugely expensive and selective prep school in DC? And how about allowing educators who are fed up with a system that protects the status quo at the expense of trying something different? The alternatives could range from making all schools schools of choice (meaning no public school anywhere gets kids automatically assigned to it) to eliminating caps of charter schools to experimenting with voucher programs free of the red tape and court challenges and Obama-endorsed smackdowns. How many more centuries are we going to put up with a school system based on an Industrial Revolution mind-set (all inputs are identical and all outputs should be too) and an agricultural calendar that might as well have been developed by the Aztecs?

There are top-performing conventional public schools and there are lousy charter and private schools, athough parents with students in the latter categories report much higher satisfaction rates. The point is that no serious changes will ever happen as long as we're stuck with the old "more money + new ideas" equation. We know exactly what that will produce: Next year's education summit about how the system needs, well, not just more money but new ideas.

Actual innovations need not cost a dollar more than we're spending now and, given the ways that charter schools and voucher programs are always stiffed when it comes to per-pupil expenditures, might be cheaper. The point is that they would actually be different. Then, maybe we can get to an even more meaningful set of conversations about what role (if any) the state should have in education and why folks who don't benefit from the system are forced to pay into it.

Reason on education.

And check out this video, which underscores the promising DC voucher program that President Obama went out of his way to torpedo.