Healthy Skepticism about Magical Money Tree and Education Reform

The federal government’s “magical money tree” can make untold billions of dollars out of thin air to spend on a wide array of pork projects and various government programs. But what will the money earmarked for education do to promote lasting and effective reform to help student success? Plenty of lip service has been given to this notion.

Don’t worry. You aren’t alone in having good reason to be very skeptical of the “stimulus” leading to real education reform. Months ago, when the stimulus was first passed, my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow made the observation:

While unconditionally dumping more funds into schools may help to guarantee jobs, it won’t help the ones who need it the most.

We’re all in good company now. In the first edition of “Education Stimulus Watch” (PDF) released this week, American Enterprise Institute adjunct fellow Andy Smarick makes a strong case for the unprecedented federal spending package to produce little or no positive results:

The law’s provisions and their interpretation by the Department of Education erect significant barriers to reform. Moreover, additional conditions on the ground make those obstacles even higher. At this early date, it appears that we must adjust our expectations about the ARRA’s ability to generate the types of improvements our schools so urgently need.

Smarick correctly notes that even the so-called “Reform-First funds” within the education stimulus will accomplish little because of their relatively small share of the total spending tab, their one-time nature, and a design that fails to leverage future investments in effective reforms.

He also reiterates the point made by others that doing nothing would have been a better approach, as “budget shortfalls would have forced states and districts to make difficult but much-needed decisions, such as prioritizing programs and reconsidering staffing patterns.” Ben DeGrow makes a similar point about the “beautiful reform opportunity” facing Colorado in restructuring its school finance system.

As much as some might wish to find some of those magical money tree seeds to plant here in Colorado, we have to think more honestly and creatively about the whole process.