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“Stimulus” education dollars little more than jobs program for K-12

by Benjamin DeGrow

Given the significant debt future generations are now obligated to repay, President Obama’s new “stimulus” law could be far better used to promote meaningful education reform in Colorado.

Rather than helping, the large amount of free-flowing federal funds may end up undermining efforts to improve educational opportunity in Colorado. It too heavily subsidizes the status quo, while needlessly placing promising innovations at risk.

Included in the poorly-named “stimulus” package is an estimated $115 billion for education-related programs. Only 5 billion goes to an Incentive Fund under the control of new education secretary Arne Duncan. He is supposed to dole out the money to state and local agencies that set high academic standards and close achievement gaps between students of different races and income levels.

Putting a small portion of the education “stimulus” in an Incentive Fund at least has some small potential to yield positive change. Reform-minded Colorado school projects have the chance to compete for some of this money.

A far greater share of the federal funds should be allotted to continuing good reform programs. For example, shortfalls have put Douglas County’s innovative local teacher licensure program on the chopping block.

And just this week, two Denver public schools have come forward to seek greater autonomy from bureaucratic personnel regulations, under the terms of a state law passed last year. More money could be used to lure other schools into accelerating the trend toward accountable autonomy.

Yet instead, Colorado’s additional billion education dollars is slated to come unconditionally, mostly to bring “stabilization” to school districts and colleges. In addition to sustaining and growing existing local innovations, this money could better be used to reward new approaches that promote liberty and doesn’t reward mediocrity.

Per-pupil spending in both Colorado and the United States has more than doubled in real terms in the past 35 years, and academic results essentially have remained flat. A massive influx of new money provides a golden opportunity to try a different tack.

If we accept the stated intent of the “stimulus”, then the primary purpose of the spending is to protect and create jobs. The “stabilization” money aids school districts, education bureaucracies, and their employees. Other funds prop up existing federal programs with less-than-stellar results.

More than six million people nationwide (and more than 100,000 in Colorado) are employed by what some have termed the K-12 “education-industrial complex”. Many are hard-working and effective, and many have a direct impact on the lives of children. But in far too many cases, the less effective employees and less necessary positions receive protections equal to or greater than those of their counterparts.

While K-12 schools certainly need employees to perform roles in improving educational outcomes for the students served, they should not be treated as federal jobs programs. It’s a matter of setting priorities.

Many have reluctantly watched the government bail out private banks and car companies, and many have as much reason to fear the greater federal government involvement in schools that’s sure to result from the latest act of Congress.

Yet if the federal government is bound to spend untold billions it doesn’t have on education, nearly all would be better served by a student-centered approach to distributing the funds. Washington would do much better to offer incentives to states and school districts that attach funds directly to students, empowering families with a wide array of public schooling options. After all, parents best know how to make use of the money to meet their children’s needs.

The dollars are parachuting in from Washington, but the best decisions about innovation and reform will spring up from below. Not only let the parents choose, but also equip principals and school-level leaders as entrepreneurs to take greater control of budgets and staffing. Enable healthy competition among schools to improve the educational services provided to students, especially those in the neediest areas.

The so-called “stimulus” is a fait accompli. Yet for all the mammoth debt, the least we can request is more incentive for the money to benefit students directly.

While unconditionally dumping more funds into schools may help to guarantee jobs, it won’t help the ones who need it the most.

 

This article originally appeared in the Denver Daily News, the Vail Mountaineer, and the Colorado Daily.

 

Ben DeGrow is a Colorado-based public policy analyst with a focus on education labor issues. Since joining the Independence Institute in 2003, Ben has advanced its research in the areas of collective bargaining, teacher unionism, teacher employment, and school finance. He oversees the Education Policy Center’s informational Web site for teachers and coordinates the Institute’s outreach to teachers.

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