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Do More On Education In The Stimulus

Thanks to the hefty sum--roughly $140 billion--slated for education funding in the federal stimulus package, heated debate over education reform has hit the news yet again. Although they welcome the attention being paid to the nation's schools, many reformers, who favor hard-line measures like performance pay, high-stakes testing, and charter school funding, are rightly arguing that there should be more conditions encouraging broad, innovative changes attached to the stimulus funds.

The main goal of the education measures is to rescue state and local school budgets that are languishing in the bad economy. As the package stands now, upwards of $15 billion would go toward school improvement, namely construction and renovation; roughly $26 billion would assist poor and disabled students through Title I and IDEA programs; and several billion more would fund student financial assistance, namely Pell grants. But, of the $140 billion, the largest portion--$79 billion--would be part of a stabilization fund meant to prevent major education cuts and layoffs. "We want to save literally hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told CNN last week.

Some reformers, however, worry that the bill could buttress jobs for teachers who aren't performing, without demanding that they start doing so. "Some of the jobs might not be worth saving," Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, told me this morning. Similarly, in a Washington Post column on Tuesday, Richard Cohen asked, "How about doing something [in the stimulus] about the sad fact that teachers aren't what they used to be?"

Troubling differences between the bill's two versions also have reformers on edge. In the House version, which passed last week, reformers say there are several praiseworthy measures. Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based advocacy group, lists among the best components $200 million for teacher incentive programs, $250 million for improving statewide data systems, and $30 million for charter school facilities. As the New America Foundation reports, however, the Senate bill, which is currently under debate, doesn't include funding for these three areas.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democrat who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds health, human services, education, and labor initiatives, has defended the Senate version, arguing that major program reforms should be included in appropriations bills at a later time. Discussing teacher incentives, he told an Education Week blog, "The stimulus bill covers just two years. If we increase funding for [teacher incentives] in the stimulus, that gives us problems [later on], when we still have to cover continuation costs, but the stimulus money is gone. It makes more sense to fund an increase through the regular appropriations process."

Nonetheless, DFER has called on the Senate to not only include the money but raise it above the House's levels. "The amounts for each of these functions are relatively (and in some cases, ridiculously) small," it said in a statement. And, in a letter sent to several Hill leaders on Tuesday, Cynthia Brown, director for education policy at the Center for American Progress, noted that such "key differences between the House and Senate versions... threaten to undermine or stifle important education reforms."

"I'm annoyed that the Senate took out the money," Brown told me this morning. "We need federal investment in trying new ways of doing things." Brown also pointed out that the Senate bill allows the secretary of education to waive a "supplement, not supplant" requirement, which would prevent states from slashing their education budgets after receiving the federal funds. "I'm worried about what that could do to high-poverty schools," Brown said. A Times editorial this morning similarly noted that attaching a waiver clause "opens the door for trouble."

As for where the Obama administration stands on the discrepancies between the bills, Duncan told Education Week that the money for teacher incentives, data systems, and charter schools is "hugely important," but he stopped short of criticizing the Senate bill. "We want to reward rigor and challenge the status quo," he added, using reform rhetoric. Moreover, on Tuesday, Obama and the first lady paid a visit to a D.C. charter school. "It's an important symbol," Petrilli of the Fordham Institute noted. "I certainly hope it means that he's going ot go to bat for [charter schools] in the stimulus bill. How sad would it be if he went to this school then signed a bill that cuts it out [of the funding], and other schools like it?"

Indeed, Obama should go to bat for reform. The Senate should sub the House's measures back in, and Congress and the administration generally shouldn't shy away from attaching reform conditions to the education money. Otherwise, they'll be squandering a prime opportunity for experimentation and innovation that could help floundering school systems.

As one reformer told me, "Make sure there are reforms that go with it and don't just spend, spend, spend."

--Seyward Darby