The Corner

Obama on Education: Not Bad, Not Great

On primary and secondary education, as on most topics, Mr. Obama stayed at 30,000 feet in his speech last night. The main themes he sounded, however, are fine: Use federal education dollars to reward success, not failure; apply Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s “race to the top” reform priorities to the megabucks Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and keep a “competitive” element in this, rather than simply distributing dollars via formula. All these things are extremely hard to do, but all are worth doing.

Later in the evening, Obama’s deputy chief of staff got a bit more specific on the White House blog. She reported that:

The President’s 2011 budget supports a new framework for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that will foster innovation, reward excellence, and promote reform in our schools, as well as invests an additional $1.35 billion to continue the historic Race to the Top program to open it up to districts in order to spur innovation and additional progress. At the same time, the Administration is moving to consolidate ineffective policies and practices. The President’s Budget eliminates six programs and consolidates 38 others into 11 new programs that emphasize using competition to allocate funds, giving communities more choices around activities, and using rigorous evidence to fund what works.

Four points here bear noting:

First, despite the proclaimed “freeze” on federal discretionary spending, education will continue to get lots more money than it did before Obama. It is evidently being “frozen” at record-high levels. (During the current school year, experts estimate, Uncle Sam is bearing 15 percent of the nation’s K-12 costs, dramatically up from the historic average of 9 percent.)

Second, the administration doesn’t want reform-minded school districts to miss out on Race to the Top funding just because their states are recalcitrant dinosaurs in the grip of teachers’ unions, etc. So they’re going to try something unusual: channeling dollars around the states and directly to districts. This is probably good for education reform but almost certainly bad for the 10th Amendment.

Third, it seems they are moving forward this year, as Duncan has hinted, to reauthorize “No Child Left Behind”, a.k.a. the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, seeking to make major changes in it — and to get bipartisan support in doing this. One can only wish them well, but reworking this monstrously complex statute is apt to prove almost as challenging as reforming health care — and by the time Congress is done, it could come out just as badly.

Fourth, every president in memory has tried to eliminate and consolidate dumb education programs in the name of efficiency, economy, and effectiveness. Few of those efforts have succeeded on Capitol Hill — and those that did have been undone within a few years. Everybody knows the federal government has way too many separate “categorical” programs that accomplish nothing other than spending money. But this tar baby is mighty sticky.

– Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Chester E. Finn Jr. — Mr. Finn is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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