Rick Hess on the House Republican Proposals for Federal Education Spending

While the House Republicans’ “continuing resolution” proposal is far from flawless, Rick Hess of AEI is encouraged by its approach to federal education spending:

[I]t looks to me like the Republicans are proposing sensible, relatively modest trims to special education, Pell Grants, and Title I, while going root and branch after a slew of small programs. The Republicans propose to save more than $1 billion by zeroing out more than 15 small programs like the Even Start Family Literacy program, Education Technology State Grants, and mathematics and science partnerships.

After all, even the administration has admitted these programs aren’t working well–as it has proposed consolidating or eliminating them. The difference is that, despite our trillion-dollar deficit, Obama’s budget seeks to funnel those dollars into grants and programs, even while proposing new ones.

On a related note, many have praised the Obama Administration for its Race to the Top proposal, which, as Ezra Klein observes, has become something of a template for new federal spending initiatives.

When administration officials talk about Race to the Top, they get a little starry-eyed. “Widely viewed as leveraging more change than any other competitive grant program in history” is how it gets introduced in the budget. The great thing about the Race to the Top money, administration officials will tell you, is that it proved so highly “leveraged.” Only 12 states actually got grants. But more than 40 states adopted a common set of K-12 standards. Dozens more lifted the caps on charter schools and agreed to more rigorous teacher evaluation programs. The money and the competition proved effective at breaking the political logjams that had frustrated reformers, giving them the momentum to pass their packages through state legislatures. And even if a state didn’t end up getting the money, it still kept the reforms it had passed while trying to get the money. 

The idea behind RTT really is something to be proud of, and the idea of more competitive grant programs strikes me as very good news. But it is important to closely examine how RTT has worked in practice. Hess has been a trenchant critic of RTT, despite his sympathy for its basic architecture. This post from August of last year is particularly strong in its criticisms, and now Rick is paying close attention to implementation at the state level. One core problem seems to that RTT seemed to reward buy-in from local teachers unions and ambitious plans over a proven track record. 

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that competitive grant programs aren’t a potentially very constructive idea. It’s important not to let the best be the enemy of the good, etc. The basic idea of leveraging federal dollars to drive systemic reform is very attractive.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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