Of all the things the Newark, N.J., school system needs, the last of them is more money. Newark spends more per pupil than any other city in the country, and gets dismayingly little for it. For $22,000 per pupil — more than twice the national average — it graduates half its students.
It’s easy to imagine Newark spending $44,000 per pupil and arriving at the same dismaying outcome. Nonetheless, billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is showering money on a school system that’s about as short on cash as he is. His $100 million grant is a vote of confidence in Newark mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, both compelling reformers. Even if they had a clear plan to fix Newark’s schools, though, they wouldn’t need to add another $100 million on top of the system’s $940 million annual budget to do it.
In microcosm, the Newark gift captures this moment in education reform. There’s earnest chatter about change and even some progress on the ground, at the same time that the bloated, ineffectual, and corrupt status quo has never been more flush in federal dollars. If the old Watergate admonition to follow the money applied, it’d be clear that the entrenched forces arrayed against a hardy band of charter-school pioneers and reforming superintendents are winning in a rout.
The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program represents its main claim to moderation in domestic policy. It encourages states to submit reform plans in a competition for a kitty of $4.35 billion in additional federal funds. This all sounds admirably nonideological and innovative, until you realize it’s a mere gloss on a massive gusher of spending-as-unusual.
The stimulus bill devoted $100 billion to education (about $80 billion of it for K–12). As Reason magazine notes, that’s twice the Department of Education’s annual budget. “Race to the Top” is less than 5 percent of this staggering gusher of money. It’s not “Race to the Top” that is the Obama administration’s signature education initiative, but spending that the teachers’ unions would only have dreamed of two short years ago.
These funds have kept school systems from having to undertake wrenching changes, or any changes at all. They have helped goose federal spending on education from $37.5 billion in the last year of the Bush administration to $88.8 billion in the second year of the Obama administration, according to the calculations of Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas.
While the private economy has shed 8 million jobs in a work force of 150 million during the downturn, the $550 billon education system has added jobs. It’s the great wonder of the American economy, growing during recessions and regardless of its quality. If everyone in America were a teacher, we’d truly be a worker’s paradise.
The spending would be justified if it correlated with outcomes. It doesn’t. We have tripled per-pupil spending during the past four decades, while results have largely stayed flat. The money has been poured into personnel, on the theory that more teachers equals more learning. If the teachers are unexceptional, that’s not true. The compensation structure of teachers — with a large portion of their pay devoted to pensions and benefits — tends to attract careerists looking to settle into jobs for life.
The resulting insular culture of nonaccountability is nearly impossible to crack. In Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has made an impressive go of it. She’s the heroine of the new, buzz-generating documentary Waiting for Superman. The film’s release may turn out only to be a perverse prelude to Rhee’s defenestration, since a political backlash against her system-rattling reforms has unseated her mayoral patron, Adrian Fenty.
Whether the likes of Rhee succeed or not, we can be sure that the maw of the education system will continue to gobble up whatever resources are thrown at it. For decades, national education reform has meant more centralization and more federal spending. Maybe it’s time to try the opposite.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.