Obama’s Education Flop
The president's education policy has only deteriorated.


Patrick Brennan

In the American Jobs Act, President Obama has put forth his most significant piece of educational policy so far: $60 billion in deficit spending to keep the teachers we currently have and to ensure that they work in buildings with green roofs and cleaner furnaces. Almost all Americans agree that we need educational reform; few would agree that this is what we had in mind.

While some of the president’s previous education-reform efforts have been laudable, these provisions were written not to fix our schools with bipartisan support, but to fire up the Democrats’ best shock troops: America’s unionized teachers.

The bill proposes two major efforts. The first involves spending $25 billion on “modernizing at least 35,000 public schools,” on the assumption that American students are falling behind because they are housed in the “crumbling schools” President Obama refers to incessantly. Second, the stimulus package includes $35 billion to “prevent layoffs” and “hire tens of thousands of new teachers.”

Flimsy support has been offered for the proposition that schools should be the federal government’s infrastructure priority. A group inclined to overstate spending needs dramatically, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), gave America’s educational infrastructure a D in 2009, and stated that we need to spend $160 billion to repair our school buildings, of which $125 billion has been allocated. While this may sound dire, a D grade and a $35 billion shortfall actually mean the ASCE rates our schools as equal to or better than the rest of America’s infrastructure. The ASCE says, for instance, that our roads face a $600 billion shortfall, and it ranks our schools as among the top three spending priorities in just nine states (and in eight of those, they are the third priority).

Thus, America’s schools are in no worse shape than most of our infrastructure. So is President Obama correct to argue that it is more important to rebuild our schools than our roads or our utility systems?

Of course not. In the words of Jay Greene, professor of education at the University of Arkansas, “buildings don’t teach kids; people do.” Roads and pipes transport cars and sewage; buildings don’t transmit knowledge. The academic evidence on this basis is unequivocal: According to Rick Hanushek’s Handbook on the Economics of Education, out of the almost 100 studies on the subject, 86 percent show no significant relationship between the quality of school buildings and student achievement. According to Greene, studies cited by advocacy groups often do not meet minimum social-science standards and are not published in journals. They often do not even control for the fact that better school buildings generally house wealthier students.

Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute notes that the idea of stimulus via school construction has a built-in “incoherence”: Any hastily constructed plan to provide jobs immediately will involve repairs of things like boilers and roofs (especially with greener alternatives), as opposed to a thorough improvement of our schools. Hess believes the bill cannot claim to “modernize schools in a way that facilitates 21st-century learning and create jobs in the here and now. . . . You get to do one of those but not both.” Hasty spending means money is likely to be wasted. Even if the boilers and roofs really do need upgrading, the spending won’t lead to the dramatic physical revolution that Obama imagines. Even the pro-construction ASCE admits that “no comprehensive, authoritative nationwide data on the condition of America’s school buildings has been collected in a decade.” Throwing money at a problem that has not been assessed and where solutions therefore cannot have empirical backing hardly befits an administration which claims to embrace fact-based policy. As Greene puts it, “If we’re thinking seriously about how we can devote resources to improving student outcomes, we wouldn’t be thinking about buildings.”

As for the other education-related provision, the bill proposes to spend $35 billion on aid to state and local governments to pay teachers they would otherwise lay off, and to hire more teachers, specifically “in the 2011–2012 and 2012–2013 school years.” Such a proposal may sound appealing, but it in fact would be quite harmful to school districts. Hiring new teachers with only two years of guaranteed federal funding is a recipe for future fiscal disaster: The federal government is offering to fund the hiring of tens of thousands of teachers whose salaries will become unaffordable after the stimulus money runs out.