Tony Woodlief | Author

Genuine reform?

President Obama, The Washington Post tells us, will propose a major increase in education spending tonight. At first glance, one might be tempted to roll the eyes. It’s not like we haven’t been trundling along on this up-escalator long enough, after all. In the past twenty years alone we’ve doubled education spending.

Yes, you read that correctly. Doubled. Even when controlling for rising enrollment and inflation, that’s still a hefty increase. Average per pupil spending in U.S. government schools now tops $9,000, which means with an average class size of roughly 20 students, we’re dropping $180,000 into every classroom into America.

The latest assessment of U.S. student performance by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals, meanwhile, that American fifteen year-olds continue to perform poorly compared to the rest of the developed world in science and math, and at best mediocre in reading.

In short, the National Education Association’s recent complaint that “there are not sufficient resources” to improve schools is laughable, as is its tired collection of pseudo-reforms and arguments against actual reforms (like alternative teacher certification, paying teachers for performance, and charter schools).

But here’s where I think we can begin to take hope. For all his government-is-the-solution-to-all-that-ails-us thinking, Obama seems poised to really shake things up in education. Assessments of individual teachers versus school-level accountability. Merit pay. These seem to be the kinds of things that a good portion of his proposed education spending increases will go toward. Even if you aren’t familiar with the details, you need look no further for proof than the fact that he’s really starting to irritate the NEA. When the teacher’s union gets upset, that’s usually a good sign.

Reading Amanda Ripley’s excellent article on Teach for America research into what makes good teachers, meanwhile, I was struck by a heartening similarity between welfare reform and education reform.

Think about it. In both cases you have a Democrat with the capital within his coalition (disregard the loony fringe for the moment) to do something significant, in much the same way that Richard Nixon could go to communist China. You have credible centrist and leftist intellectuals who admit the system is broken, and who are beginning to recognize the merits of a system of individual autonomy and accountability. We’ve also seen a flip since 2004, such that a slight majority of Americans are dissatisfied with schools.

The legal environment for home-schooling, private and charter schools, and school choice has never been better. Details about shoddy government school performance are more widely accessible. Large foundations are finally pouring real money into reform efforts. And now you have a Democrat president pushing for merit pay and teacher accountability. What’s more, after the mid-term elections you can count on a resurgent, quite possibly legitimately conservative Republican contingent in Congress — exactly the same mix, in other words, that we saw produce welfare reform.

I’m hard pressed to think of any reform we can make in American policy that would yield more lasting benefits than to give parents choices about where their children will be educated, and teachers strong incentives to either learn how to teach better or seek another trade. And I think there’s a chance we’ll see significant strides toward that dream under Obama. Now that’s an audacious hope.

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