Peanut Butter Politics: Education Funding Is a Sticky Issue

| Newsweek | Jonathan Alter

"Education is the dullest of subjects," Jacques Barzun wrote in the very first sentence of his astonishingly fresh 1945 classic, Teacher in America. Barzun despised the idea of "professional educators" who focus on "methods" instead of subject matter. He loved teachers, but knew they "are born, not made," and that most teachers' colleges teach the wrong stuff.

Cut to 2009, when Barack Obama thinks education is the most exciting of subjects. Even so, Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, get Barzun. They understand that the key to fixing education is better teaching, and the key to better teaching is figuring out who can teach and who can't.

Just as Obama has leverage over the auto industry to impose tough fuel–economy standards, he now has at least some leverage over the education industry to impose teacher-effectiveness standards. The question is whether he will be able to use it, or will he get swallowed by what's known as the Blob, the collection of educrats and politicians who claim to support reform but remain fiercely committed to the status quo.

Teacher effectiveness–say it three times. Last week a group called the New Teacher Project released a report titled "The Widget Effect" that argues that teachers are viewed as indistinguishable widgets–states and districts are "indifferent to variations in teacher performance"–and notes that more than 99 percent of teachers are rated satisfactory. The whole country is like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, except all the teachers are above average, too.

Why? The short answer is teachers' unions. Duncan complained recently that the California school system has a harmful "firewall" between student evaluation and teacher evaluation. In other words, teachers can't be evaluated on whether their students actually learned anything between September and June. The head of the San Francisco union says it's nuts to judge teachers on whether there's evidence that shows improvement in their classrooms. An A for accountability, eh?

Fortunately, Duncan has a huge new club in his hands–billions in stimulus money and Title I aid for poor schools. A chunk of it (about $10 billion total) is reserved for innovative "Race to the Top" funds. Duncan's idea (with backing from Obama) is that a few states that are moving fast on turning around failing schools and improving measurable teacher effectiveness should get most of that money.

This is spot-on substantively, but treacherous politically. Congress likes to see money spread like peanut butter across the country. It makes members look like they're "doing something for education." Recall how Duncan's predecessor, Margaret Spellings, saw her "Innovation Fund" used for such cutting-edge projects as a whaling museum.

Like Obama and Duncan, Rep. George Miller, the leading reformer in Congress, wants the money to be targeted on just a few programs with track records in turning around poorly performing schools and training teachers better. He rightly figures we know what works now and should just go ahead and fund it. But his colleagues have their own whaling-museum ideas, so the peanut-butter politics continue.

On Capitol Hill last week, members of Congress insisted that the administration stick to the "formulas"–Washington-speak for the same old, same old. And they want to make sure the $48 billion (real money, even by Geithnerian standards) in education stimulus funds continue to be spent exclusively on preventing teacher layoffs, not on reform. Too many members apparently didn't get the word from their old colleague Rahm Emanuel that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

The big question now is how to tighten the weak strings that were attached to the stimulus. Those strings merely ask states to show they are "making progress" and "making improvements" in critical areas like standards, data systems to measure success and incentives for teachers to work in at-risk schools.

With some bureaucratic cojones, Obama can enforce those requirements before the last $16 billion in "state stabilization" stimulus funds get disbursed this fall. This is easier said than done. The incentive to peanut-butter (sorry, Teacher, I turned it into a verb) the money is powerful not just on Capitol Hill but inside the Department of Education, where making nice to Congress is the path of least resistance. It takes a tough man to say, in the middle of a recession, "no improvement, no check." But if not now, when?

Barzun wrote that almost everyone has an attention span "as short as the mating of a fly." Obama has the attention, for now, of the educrats. In fact, he's got his foot on their necks. It's a teachable moment about how to use political power for real change.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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