Politics & Policy

Obama’s Education Flop

The president's education policy has only deteriorated.

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.

While short-term funding to prevent layoffs of teachers at a time when state and local tax receipts are low may seem better than the hiring of new teachers, stimulus funding is unlikely to help here either. Property taxes, the main source of education funding, will not recover to previous levels for several years, at a minimum: Home prices in most regions have not even stopped falling, let alone begun to approach their previous levels (the national Case-Schiller Index is down 32 percent from its 2006 peak). Because tax assessments lag behind property values, even if home prices do make a full recovery in some areas, towns and states may not see their education funding recover until the end of the decade. Postponing difficult decisions with two years of federal aid is bad policy. Fiscally responsible school districts, when granted money for the same purpose by the 2009 stimulus package, chose instead to spend the money in other ways, including one-time lump bonuses to teachers.

Undirected flows of money to school districts, or even the promise of such (since the bill may not pass), make it more difficult for communities to exact competitive deals from unions, a key element of any education reform, even to Obama. As Frederick Hess argues, “Even if union leaders are inclined to cut a deal with their districts, they’re going to look like saps to their membership” if they take anything less now. Two years of federal Danegeld to teachers’ unions will invite further assaults on school districts in the future.

Of course, the Obama administration knows all of this. The education sections of the American Jobs Act are not good policy, but they are good politics. Like the bill as a whole, the education initiatives are not intended to pass Congress and become law; they are intended to create progressive political momentum for Obama’s reelection. The administration’s earlier education policies have strained relations with teachers’ unions, a key Democratic political asset. Promising tens of billions of dollars in funding for schools and burdening school districts with future obligations is, primarily, a gift to those unions.

The education elements of the bill are not just poorly designed aspects of a bill that never stood a chance, however. They are a disturbing development for education reform: The president has promoted some worthwhile initiatives, such as merit pay and charter schools, and thus far been willing to confront teachers’ unions, one of American education’s biggest problems. Unfortunately, this act threatens to undermine Obama’s education efforts, not least by tying them to yet another instance of wasteful federal overreach. In debates, several Republican presidential candidates have already begun to paint Obama’s generally respectable reforms as more excessive meddling by the federal government. The serious flaws of the American Jobs Act threaten to politicize education reform, on which there had been hope for a bipartisan consensus.

By including educational pork spending in the new stimulus package, Obama will hardly help, and may in fact harm, America’s schools.

— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow.

Patrick BrennanPatrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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