Barack Obama spent about 1,000 words of his 7,000-word State of the Union address on education, which might make you think this will be a big year for education reform.
But despite an abundance of words like "forward" and "progress," Obama mostly patted himself on the back for what he had already done for America's schoolkids, and then told parents to step it up ("Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done") and everyone else to get a teaching certificate ("to every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice—become a teacher").
The president's primary boast about K-12 education was that "instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top." It would have been far more accurate to say: "In addition to pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top."
At $4.35 billion, Race to the Top spending barely touched the $500 billion spent on education at the federal, state, and local level. But by refusing to give states the money until after they actually made changes to the way they do business, Race to the Top did elicit a pretty big bang for the buck. The president said that "for less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning."
The grant application process pushed states to report out more information about teacher quality and lift caps on the number of charter schools, for instance, just in order to be eligible for the funds. And perhaps most important, the piles of cash were big enough and the rules specific enough that they finally gave state legislators, governors, and education bureaucracies sufficient incentive to risk ticking off teachers unions a little.
But those same unions remain a powerful force in how the other 99 percent of education money is spent. The amount used to incentivize states toward reform is dwarfed by the money pouring in to preserve the status quo. Last fall's $10 billion in grants to the states to protect education jobs demonstrated that a little old-style lobbying for handouts can have a much bigger, easier payout than making the case for hard fought reforms that piss off teachers unions.
Meanwhile, Obama mentioned education reauthorization only in the vaguest terms, urging Congress to "replace No Child Left Behind with a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids." No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on data collection and testing, is now thoroughly out of favor with pretty much everyone. Vague murmurs about a more robust way to measure teacher quality without relying exclusively on testing data are on the rise. But education funding is a partisan issue, thanks in large part to the massive donations of the major teachers unions to mostly Democratic candidates, and it will play out in a partisan way on the floors of the House and Senate. Everyone already says they know "what's best for our kids."
Obama also urged more college attendance using the same language of international competition that ran through the rest of the speech—"America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree." But he chose not to allude to the new, controversial Department of Education rules that would limit access to federal dollars by for-profit career colleges.
Obama got one thing right, though, at least on the federal level: "Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation." And that's the most depressing part. A program that doled out a measly $4 billion in chunks ranging from $75 million to $700 million probably is the biggest step we have taken toward school reform in a couple of decades. And it's not much.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.