President Barack Obama recently delivered his first major education speech, titled “What’s Possible for Our Children.” In the speech he used strong language that appealed to those seeking real education reforms. The president endorsed the expansion of innovative charter schools, performance pay for teachers, and the elimination of ineffective teachers.
Many news stories suggested that Obama was “taking on the unions” in his speech. Mr. Obama deserves some credit; he’s perhaps the only president, or major politician, to ever call for actually firing a school teacher in a major education speech. But at the same time, it is much easier to criticize current teaching practices after you have saved thousands of union jobs with billions of new dollars that will strengthen the status quo.
If you follow Obama’s spending patterns, and his legislation, the teachers’ unions have little to worry about because the reforms that he talks about don’t seem to have any actual force behind them.
The majority of federal education spending will continue to go to ineffective programs. And thanks to the stimulus package, local school districts are receiving loads of money to prop up district budgets, ensuring that incompetent teachers will never be laid off or terminated even during these tough economic times.
Obama’s education plan also champions expanding access to preschool. He calls for new grants to incentivize states to develop state-run preschool programs – despite the fact that 70 percent of four-year-olds are already enrolled in preschool and that states with long-running universal preschool programs continue to score below average on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests. If implemented universal pre-k programs will most likely crowd-out existing preschool options and move the system toward a lower-quality, government-run monopoly.
The president has also increased Pell grants and made expanding college access a priority without detailing what results the increased spending will deliver. Higher education costs continue to rise, in part because of subsidized tuition. Federal loans, Pell Grants, and other tuition assistance programs create more demand for college. As a result, costs rise. According to data from the College Board, college federal aid grew by 77 percent in inflation adjusted dollars between 1997 and 2007. Tuition prices rose almost 30 percent at private colleges and 41 percent at public colleges during that time. Despite the aid, only about half of U.S. college students graduate within six years.
The education system is looking at receiving billions in extra funding but is being asked to make very few concessions or reforms. Most of the reform policies that Obama mentions, from charter schools to performance pay, are completely missing from the actual legislative agenda.
Charter schools received almost no funding from the stimulus package and there was no requirement for states to remove destructive charter school caps in exchange for billions. Similarly, while he plans to fund a few teacher incentive pilot programs, President Obama missed the opportunity to tie the billions in new federal education dollars to outcomes that could result in serious personnel reform.
Mr. Obama has also remained silent about the children who have escaped Washington, DC,’s failing public schools and used vouchers to attend higher performing private schools. At the very moment, he was giving his speech on how to fix America’s schools, Senate Democrats voted to effectively kill the DC voucher program and prevent more poor kids from fleeing failing schools.
Obama’s staff has hinted they’ll try to preserve the voucher program, at least for the kids already in it.
“I don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they’re happy and safe and satisfied and learning,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “I think those kids need to stay in their school.”
And Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that “it wouldn’t make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system, and I think we’ll work with Congress to ensure that a disruption like that doesn’t take place.”
We’ll see if the administration follows through. Right now the president’s education plan is rife with inconsistencies. He is willing to spend more on Pell Grants (vouchers) for adults to attend college, but opposes them for children. He calls for professionalizing the teaching profession, yet effectively gives the unions huge amounts of new money to preserve the current rigid staffing models. He says the education system is failing, but wants that failing education system expanded to include universal preschool.
President Obama often talks about challenging the status quo. Education offers him the chance to do just that. Unfortunately, right now it looks like we’re just throwing more money at that status quo.
Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation.