Barack Obama managed a spectacular feat last year when he convinced fellow congressional Democrats to set aside $5 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for what became his Race to the Top school reform initiative. Obama won some well-deserved praise for using those dollars, along with his bully pulpit (and that of his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan), to coax even states such as California to remove restrictions on the expansion of charter schools and subject teachers to private sector-style performance management. This has weakened the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have long counted on the Democratic Party (and their influence in statehouses) to dominate education policy.
Yet Obama hasn’t succeeded in forcing states and school districts to abandon their worst practices. This is because the very stimulus plan that helped fund Race to the Top also financed those very habits without any strings attached to force states to alter behavior or adapt more-systemic reforms. It may take a full restructuring of school funding and state laws (along with a reckoning with the long-term costs of unfunded defined-benefit pensions) to finally achieve lasting reform.
In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District is expanding school choice by handing off 196 of its schools to private operators and parent-teacher groups, as well as authorizing the establishment of 80 new charter schools over the next two years. Yet in the past two years, and in spite of $395 million in short-term federal funds aimed at helping it fill its budget, L.A. Unified laid off 2,700 young teachers — including 400 of its best young elementary and middle-school teachers, while protecting laggard veterans on the payroll.
Meanwhile in Texas, the Houston Independent School District and its superintendent, Terry Grier, have been praised by Duncan (and attacked by the AFT local there) for such moves as requiring the use of student test score data in teacher evaluations. But the district also has 200 more special education aides on the payroll this year — even though the district has 6,000 fewer students than there were five years ago. Why? Because it had to spend the $18 million in short-term funds it received from the Obama administration last year. (The teachers, by the way, will be on the unemployment line by the end of this school year.)
And in Connecticut, the state government used $542 million in federal funds to fund grants at existing levels — while taking the equivalent amount in state dollars and directing it toward other uses. This action, called supplanting, wasn’t an isolated occurrence; nearly all states made similar moves.
Causing all of this misbehavior is the very stimulus plan that helped Obama launch Race to the Top and his other reform initiatives. On top of the $62 billion spent annually by the federal government on education, it added another $95 billion to helping states states avoid budget-cutting and stave off layoffs of the nation’s 6.2 million teachers and other school employees. While the Obama administration attempted to direct states and school districts to use the money in a more reform-minded manner, it managed to make a mess of this by issuing conflicting regulatory guidance (when it managed to get the information out to bureaucracies in a timely manner).
Not that states and districts would have paid it any mind. Declares school reform consultancy Bellwether Education Partners in a report it released last week: “the one-time nature of [stimulus dollars] may have made districts less willing to use these dollars to support ongoing reform.” Naturally. Meanwhile the rest of the federal dollars went into existing programs whose formulas have long ago been set by congressional edict. This includes $23 billion for Title I — the federal program used to help provide extra teachers and programs for poor students — and special education grants. As a result, most states and school districts spent the money with little consideration for thrift or reform.
School reformers have since attempted — with little success — to force Obama and Congress to take different approaches in doling out bailout funds. Earlier this year, they unsuccessfully demanded that House and Senate Democrats require states to stop last hired-first fired layoffs as a condition for receiving the $10 billion in federal funding that came courtesy of the so-called Edujobs bill. They will likely attempt to get congressional Republicans to place similar strings on Title I funding.
The bigger challenge is actually restructuring how American public education spends the $593 billion in tax dollars it receives every year. Given that school funding has increased constantly over the past five decades (including by 16 percent between 2000 and 2007), public schools don’t suffer from a lack of money, but from ineffective spending.
Thanks to decades of deals between teachers unions, state governments, and school districts, pensions and retiree teacher health benefits consume ever more school dollars. The average state now spends 34 cents on benefits for every dollar of teacher salary in 2007-2008, versus 28 cents in 2003-2004, according to the U.S. Department of Education. States now pay $68 billion for pensions, $18 billion more than they did five years ago. More money will end up being diverted from classrooms thanks to at least $600 billion in pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs that are now coming due thanks to the retirements of baby boomers from the teaching ranks.
Just as costly — and harder to see — are other aspects of traditional teacher compensation such as degree- and seniority-based pay scales. Some $8 billion alone is spent on pay raises for teachers who obtained master’s degrees; this practice continues despite evidence that there is no correlation between graduate degree attainment and student achievement. Another $7 billion annually is devoted to university schools of education to train collegians to become teachers. But that money is also wasted. Just 13 percent of 77 education schools surveyed by the National Council on Teacher Quality had high quality math instruction programs.
The nation spent $53 billion in 2008 on school construction and another $16 billion on capital outlays; that’s 11.6 percent of all public school spending. While some of that money is going to replacing aging structures, the funds are also used to build lavish athletic fields and sprawling campuses. One such complex is the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in L.A., which was built on the grounds of the hotel where Sen. Kennedy was slain. The cost so far: $600 million.
School districts remain as inefficient as ever. As Michael Casserly of the Council for the Great City Schools points out, just 69 percent of school buses are kept in operation throughout the school year. Most districts still keep antiquated academic, financial, and management information systems in place — even as the private sector and the federal government have begun embracing 21st century technology and techniques. The nation’s big-city school districts are particularly inefficient, often serving as jobs programs. The ratio of administrators and staff to teachers in the average urban district is two-to-one, according to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Emeritus Martin Haberman; the ratio in suburban and rural districts is two-to-eight.
Obama is learning that short-term bailouts and long-term reform efforts do not go hand-in-hand. One can only hope it’s an object lesson he takes seriously.