Friday, January 29, 2010

Jay Mathews with his usual trenchant insights:

Fix schools with ideas, not money

President Obama is apparently about to tell the nation he wants to freeze federal spending for three years in several areas, including education. I like the idea. I would also support cutting back entitlement payments for financially secure geezers like me, and find ways for everyone to make some sacrifices for our country.

I can hear the objections. We can't fix our economy by shortchanging our kids. They are our future. True, but we don't have much evidence that spending more money on their schooling has had much effect on what they have learned. The most exciting and productive schools I have studied are driven by ideas, not bucks. If they need money for special projects, they find it. But the power of their teaching comes from the freedom they are allowed to help with their students, as a team, in ways that make the most sense to them.

More money often prevents that from happening. It has strings that force teachers to do stuff, and spend time on paperwork, that doesn't work for them. The recent history of the stimulus funds used for education makes this clear.

Here is my must-read article of the month: "Toothless Reform?" by Andy Smarick, a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, writing for the journal Education Next.

Here is one of my favorite paragraphs from that piece, describing how the states promised to follow the Obama administration's desire that the money be used to not just save jobs, but make schools better, and why that didn't happen:

"Yes, governors signed the ARRA's [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] reform assurances but states didn't use SFSF [State Fiscal Stabilization Fund] dollars for reform. Yes, states developed standards and assessments as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) required, but many adopted weak standards and set low cut scores. Yes, districts developed policies for NCLB public school choice and supplemental education services, but they cleverly thwarted the full implementation of these programs, evidenced by the shockingly low student participation rates. As others have noted, the federal government can make states and districts do what they don't want to, but it can't make them do it well."

With that federal education fund flow running drive, what can we do to help educators be creative with less money? We could allow more charter schools. In fact, Smarick sets up a perfect test of the Obama administration's courage in handing out its Race to the Top money, supposed to make schools more creative. Tennessee lifted its cap on charters, as the administration asked, but in two days two of its cities denied all 24 charter applications before them. Will Tennessee still get the big bucks? Stay tuned.

Local districts could give principals more power over what their schools spend their limited dollars on. The unions could pursue good ideas like Randi Weingarten's fund for reform measures. What ideas do you have? There are lots of things we can do with just a little money, and for the forseeable future, that is all we are likely to get.

 Subscribe in a reader