(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Over on NRO, Petrilli, Finn and Hess note that yet another radical expansion of federal education funding is reportedly being considered for inclusion in the “stimulus” package, e.g. in addition to building lots of roads and bridges, we’ll build lots of schools.
PFH (as I’ll call them for short) note that more spending has not only proven itself an ineffective way to improve schools, but may actually even harm them:
Naturally, the leaders of any organization would rather sidestep problems than confront them. In good times, budgets expand, payrolls grow, new people come on board, and managers delay difficult decisions. Tough times come to serve as a healthful (if sour) tonic, forcing leaders to identify priorities and giving them political cover to trim the fat.
So instead of more money, they advocate less:
Education, then, cries out for a good belt-tightening. A truly tough budget situation would force and enable administrators to take those steps. They could rethink staffing, take a hard look at class sizes, trim ineffective personnel, shrink payrolls, consolidate tiny school districts, replace some workers with technology, weigh cost-effective alternatives to popular practices, reexamine statutes governing pensions and tenure, and demand concessions from the myriad education unions.
And while we’re at it, I’d like a pony, and a spaceship, and a million dollars.
One thing they don’t point out is that “stimulus” spending, like all pork, is notorious for going to politically useful projects rather than to projects that serve the public interest. Just because you spend more money building bridges doesn’t mean you get the bridges that you actually need. Never mind the “bridge to nowhere” – remember that big bridge collapse in Minneapolis a while back? In the immediate aftermath, some liberals rushed to blame the deaths on hard-hearted budget cutters. But it later came out that plenty of money was being spent on road and bridge repair, but it didn’t go to the bridge that needed it, despite the bridge having been rated “structurally deficient” for two whole years.
PFH then go on to ask:
Is there a way to make the impending bailout actually help those kids as well as the nation? Team Obama and its Congressional allies could take a page out of the Troubled Assets Relief Program playbook and require the various education interest groups to “take a haircut,” just like auto workers, investors, and shareholders have had to do. As the auto bailout required the U.A.W. to forfeit its beloved “jobs bank,” states taking federal dollars could be required to overhaul their tenure laws, ban “last hired, first fired” rules, experiment with pay-for-performance, make life easier for charter schools, and curb unrealistic pension promises.
I’m not in a position to throw stones since I’ve advocated the same thing, but I’m not holding my breath.
Next on their wish list, inexplicably, is a big pile of money for summer programs. If there’s any research showing that summer programs are a good investment, they don’t cite it. To their credit, they insist that solid empirical evaluation should be a condition of the money. But if we want to set up big new federally funded pilot programs for educational innovations, why not do it for an innovation that is solidly proven to work in many limited trials but has never been tried on a larger scale?
They also wish for better data systems (who doesn’t?) and, as always, whether it’s relevant to the topic or not, “national standards.” About the latter, our own Matt Ladner has already given us what I think is really the last word.