The Obama Administration’s signature K-12 education program, Race to the Top, has gotten a lot of press in the last couple weeks with the announcement of first-round winners Tennessee and Delaware. But for all the hullabaloo and homework it’s created for states, Race to the Top represents only a small part of the overall K-12 education budget ($4.5 billion compared to $46.2 billion in 2010, not to mention $80 billion overall in K-12 funding from the 2009 stimulus bill) and functions outside the existent federal policy apparatus—essentially as the Secretary’s slush fund.
Now the Obama administration’s plans for the legislative overhaul of its predecessor’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are emerging. The Department of Education recently released “A Blueprint for Reform.” As with Race to the Top, the blueprint has been couched in reform-minded terms–flexibility rather than compliance, turning around failing schools. But just as Race to the Top seems to let unions set the high-water mark for state reforms, the blueprint’s familiar liberal refrains raise questions about how far the Obama administration’s ideas will actually depart from the status quo.
Spread the wealth goes to school: The blueprint talks quite a bit about “resource equity” among schools, which sounds a lot like liberals’ perennial goal of equalizing funding among schools. It even calls for the “equitable distribution” of effective teachers and principals:
Over time, districts will be required to ensure that their high-poverty schools receive state and local funding levels (for personnel and relevant non-personnel expenditures) comparable to those received by their low-poverty schools. … States will be asked to measure and report on resource disparities and develop a plan to tackle them.
States will also be required to develop meaningful plans to ensure the equitable distribution of teachers and principals that receive at least an ‘effective’ rating.
The trouble is we know that increased spending doesn’t equal increased achievement. Since 1989, federal education spending has tripled (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Yet education results have remained fairly flat over that time. Reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released last month once again showed little improvement despite massive education spending increases under both Presidents Bush and Obama.
New push for national standards: The blueprint would make funding to states contingent on adoption of common standards, currently under design by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. This would breach yet another wall of federalism, involving the federal government in curriculum issues.
Beginning in 2015, formula funds will be available only to states that are implementing assessments based on college- and career-ready standards that are common to a significant number of states.
Now comes word that the administration is also offering $350 million to a consortium of states to develop an assessment system tracking student mastery of common college- and career-ready standards.
Washington should steer clear of the standards and testing business and instead set policies that lead to greater transparency for parents and other taxpayers about the information already delivered by state standards and testing along with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Parents and other taxpayers should not give up one of their most powerful tools for control of education to the federal government.
Retreats on parental options: The Obama plan backs away from requirements that parents be allowed to choose other public schools or private tutoring when schools repeatedly failed. Empowering parents was a key theme of the Bush administration’s NCLB. The Obama draft does more to empower bureaucrats.
As one example, the Obama administration wants to ramp up activities of the 600-employee Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education to address racial disparities in areas like disciplinary action and Advanced Placement courses. Last month Secretary Arne Duncan announced:
In coming weeks and months, we will be issuing a series of guidance letters to school districts and postsecondary institutions that will address issues of fairness and equity. We will be announcing a number of compliance reviews to ensure that all students have access to educational opportunities…
Educational opportunity should be a priority and the achievement gap is a problem. But rather than pursuing equalized inputs like funding (which hasn’t proven successful), why not empower parents of all races and income levels to choose a safe and effective school? The Obama administration could, for example, champion options like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Instead, it’s remained silent as the D. C. scholarship students’ futures hang in the balance.
Shows the problems with federal overreach in education: The federal government supplies about 10 percent of the funding that goes to local schools but is calling far more than its share of the policy shots. The Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was already a significant federal overreach. Now the Obama Administration is going to overhaul it and change the measuring stick. Rather than the NCLB requirement that all students show proficiency by 2014, the new requirement would be high school graduates meeting college and career-readiness standards by 2020. (Note that both plans push the due date outside their authoring administration’s tenure.)
Plus, each new plan comes with a significant compliance burden: According to the Office of Management and Budget, NCLB has increased the annual paperwork burden on state and local communities by 7 million hours, or $140 million. The new blueprint would leave states, districts, and schools trying to catch up with this new plan for at least the next half decade—until a new president comes along with the next remake.
100,000 American public schools shouldn’t become a political football. Instead, we need federal policies that allow those closest to students to make the decisions that work for them. Florida, for example, has implemented a set of reforms and Hispanic students are making significant strides—matching or outscoring the average of all students in 31 states on the recent NAEP results.
At the federal level, the A-PLUS alternative to NCLB would allow states flexibility to put funding where local needs most demand it while maintaining true accountability through state-level testing and information reporting to parents to ensure transparency.