Obama’s Cabinet: Education

Continuing the series on Obama’s possible cabinet picks, Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia considers the best and worst choices Obama could make for Secretary of Education:

Unlike our national infrastructure, our education system’s problems do not stem from a lack of investment. The United States spent $553 billion on public elementary and secondary education in 2006-2007, which is 4.2 percent of gross domestic product. Per student government spending on education has grown 49 percent between 1984 and 2004 and two years ago stood at $9,266 after adjusting for inflation. Still, student achievement has barely budged as measured by high school graduation rates, SAT scores or long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores. The conventional wisdom is that schools need more resources to reduce classroom size, buy more computers and hire more credentialed teachers. The problem, however, is not one of inputs, but of accountability and incentives. As things stand, the vast majority of parents whose children are stuck in failing schools have few options for transferring to better schools. What’s more, since teachers obtain guaranteed raises based on the pay scales negotiated by their unions, they have little incentive to try new teaching strategies or look for innovative ways to ensure learning. In short, public schools have a captive market whose providers face little penalty for poor service. To change that would require reintroducing proper incentives, including firing underperforming teachers and linking teacher raises to performance – both measures that Obama has supported. He has also advocated doubling funding for charter schools to expand parental choice. However, kids in failing schools will get real choice only when education dollars are tied to their backs so that they can go to any public, private or charter school of their choice. San Francisco, Florida and many other places have tried this with remarkable success in reforming their public schools and improving student performance. The choice component in the No Child Left Behind Act, however, has failed because it is too weak. It requires chronically low-performing schools to give their kids an option of attending another school in their district. But since there are usually few good options within a district, less than 1 percent of parents actually opt for a different school. The new secretary should use the pending reauthorization of the law to expand and strengthen its school choice aspect. The hands down best person for the job would be Michelle Rhee, current chancellor of D.C. Public Schools and the founder of the New Teacher Project, a nationwide nonprofit that trains teachers for needy school districts. A non-establishment liberal, she has been dubbed the “Crusader of the Classroom” by The Atlantic because she has taken on the city’s powerful unions and offered unwavering backing to D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program – the country’s first federal voucher program that gives 1,900 kids from low-income families up to $7,500 to attend private schools of their choice. Rhee, a tough and able administrator, doesn’t see school choice as a threat to her mission in the public schools. “I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent’s ability to make a choice for their child. Ever,” she said. Indeed, she correctly sees the competition presented by school choice and charter schools as part of the process of raising standards in the public school system at large. Although she hedged her support for vouchers when pressed during the presidential campaign, her overall support for school choice stems not from any ideological commitment, but her pragmatism and open-mindedness – exactly the kind of person that an empirically-driven president would want on his side. Also excellent would be General Colin Powell and Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City’s schools – both political centrists who support school reform over simply pouring more money into the system. Gen. Powell, President Bush’s former Secretary of State who endorsed Obama, has been an ardent supporter of all manner of school choice to give poor, minority parents the same options that the rich enjoy. He has the stature and the depth to take on the education establishment and push reforms, qualities that would more than compensate for his lack of experience in education. More controversial, but equally good would be Joel Klein, whose very possibility for the office has caused New York teachers’ unions to launch a petition drive opposing him – something that in itself demonstrates his aptness for the job. As chancellor of the largest public school system in the country, he has realized that top-down central planning doesn’t work and emphasized giving school principals more authority to run their schools while holding them accountable for results. He should, however, be kept as far away from the Justice Department as possible given the gusto with which he used antitrust laws to hound Microsoft during the Clinton years. Among the less good, but still quite respectable picks, would be Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools and a regular in Obama’s basketball games. He was on the court with Obama the morning after the election. Duncan is a reformist who has implemented something along the lines of San Francisco’s weighted-student formula under which kids can take their education dollars to any school – public or private. Although not a supporter of full-blown vouchers, he authored the Renaissance 2010 program which aims at converting all failing schools in Chicago into charters by 2010. Like Obama, he supports performance pay for teachers. Also acceptable would be Jonathan Schnur, founder and chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools – a national nonprofit that trains principals for urban public schools. He takes an unorthodox approach to teacher training, focusing not on candidates with traditional educational backgrounds but from all walks of life. Obama should try to stay away from governors such as Janet Napolitano of Arizona; Tim Kaine of Virginia; and Jim Hunt of North Carolina. All of them would favor driving as much federal funding to states as opposed to tackling school reforms. They all are strong advocates of early childhood education and are likely to push – rather than temper – Obama’s plan to create a federally-funded universal preschool program, despite little evidence that this would help to improve academic performance. Among the absolute worst picks for the job would be Randi Weingarten, current president of the United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, and Inez Tenenbaum, State Superintendent of Education in South Carolina. As a leader of New York unions, Weingarten has constantly butted heads with Joel Klein and opposed basic, sensible school reforms that unions find threatening. Tenenbaum is a career politician who has shown no interest in reforming South Carolina’s schools despite their dismal SAT performance. Picking either of them would be an eloquent signal that Obama wants to use this cabinet pick as pay-off to special interest groups rather than fix America’s broken school system.