Stimulus Bill Funding to Education Should Be Tied to Reform

Thursday, January 29, 2009

EDUCATION is poised to win big under the economic stimulus plan hurtling through Congress. But it remains to be seen whether America's schoolchildren really will be helped by the huge investment of public funds that is being planned. After all, it seems that much of the billions of dollars of new federal spending is aimed at continuing programs and policies that largely have failed to improve student achievement. For the amount of money being spent, Congress should insist on real change, not simply more of the same.

The plan shaped by President Obama and congressional Democrats proposes to more than double the current budget of the Education Department, with $150 billion of new federal spending over two years. States facing budget shortfalls would be able to tap into $79 billion to avoid layoffs and other education cuts. There would, as the New York Times reported, be big boosts in Title I grants to help educate poor children and for students in special education. For the first time, the federal government would play a significant role in the repair and construction of schools. Money also would be expended to strengthen Head Start and shore up Pell grants for college students. The House passed its version yesterday, and the Senate is likely to act soon. Critical work will have to be done in conference.

Don't get us wrong. We are glad to see education ranked as an important national priority, and it is prudent for the federal government to help states forestall debilitating cuts in school programs. One only has to look at the progress being made in such places as Prince George's County to appreciate the importance of not having to lay off good teachers or to grossly increase class sizes. And, by saving jobs, such expenditures do meet the test of providing a stimulus to the economy.

Nonetheless, Congress will not be getting its money's worth unless it insists on real reforms in what students are expected to learn and how teachers are compensated. Instead of offering extra money to states for doing what they should be doing under current law, why not put in place tough new national standards and demand that states meet them to get money? If the federal government is to help save teaching jobs, shouldn't it demand a way to get rid of ineffective teachers? Current funding formulas already put school districts with the most urgent needs at a disadvantage, so why use them to allocate the new money?

Answering those questions is likely to take more time and thought. We understand the urgency of the need for spending that will jump-start the economy, but if Congress merely props up the educational status quo, it will be wasting more than money.


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