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Obama's Stimulus Plan: $100 Billion and Little Change

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The new Obama administration could use a rewind button. Hit it and we'd go back to those wonderful days of a couple of weeks ago when history was made, change was in the air and all of Washington tingled with anticipation. Now, though, we have one Cabinet nominee who did not pay all of his taxes and another Cabinet pick already confirmed who did something similar -- and a stimulus package that offers mountains of cash but only molehills of reform. Can we go back a bit?

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Taken individually, the tax problems of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the health and human services secretary-designate, Tom Daschle, don't amount to much. Together, though, they amount to a message: If you are beloved by this administration, you don't necessarily have to play by the rules. Both Geithner and Daschle are good men, but their appointments send the message that Washington's new broom sweeps a bit like the old one.

That message is only compounded by the stimulus package. The need for at least $1 trillion in economic stimulus is beyond argument, and the GOP's obsession with tax cuts -- What if taxpayers don't spend enough? -- is just a version of what Samuel Johnson said about second marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience." (The most recent tax rebate proved to be a relative bust.) But what's lacking in the package is precisely what Barack Obama campaigned on: change. The stimulus is mostly more of the same.

Education should have been the area where Obama put some meat on the bones of change. The administration has earmarked an astounding $100 billion for K-12 education, but far, far less for reform. One man's crisis is another's opportunity, and the current recession is a grand chance to induce the education establishment to change its wayward ways. More money alone is not going to make a big difference. Look at the D.C. school system. If only money made the difference, the official language of Washington would be Latin. It ain't.

Most of the $100 billion earmarked for K-12 education goes to enrich existing programs or to ensure that they continue. Some of these programs, such as Title I for disadvantaged children, are federally mandated, and with the recession they are becoming increasingly difficult for the states to fund. This is money well spent.

But if the money is going to be offered, why not couple it with demands for reform? After all, without the extra cash, the likelihood is that teachers across the country will be laid off. That gives the president some leverage: Take my money, take my reforms. Maybe a deal could not be done. We won't know. We do know, though, that the teachers unions have an understandable aversion to some reforms. We also know that the unions supported Obama in his campaign.

Do your reading on education and you will find an emerging consensus. Abolish tenure. There are other ways to ensure that teachers are fairly treated without guaranteeing the jobs of the inept. (Cops don't have tenure, and neither do columnists.) Ensure that the best teachers teach at the most challenging schools and ensure also that they get paid lavishly for doing so.

How about extending the school day, maybe for an hour or so? How about extending the school year? How about tinkering with the No Child Left Behind law but insisting that testing -- accountability -- be maintained? How about doing something about the sad fact that teachers aren't what they used to be? Now that women and minorities have more opportunities in almost every field, the best of them have abandoned teaching. The pay is lousy, and the work can be hard. Can $100 billion do something about that? Could be.

None of this is exactly radical. It is more or less the program advocated by such reforming big-city school chiefs as Washington's Michelle Rhee and New York's Joel Klein. They, as well as other educators, are not union-busters in the old sense of the word. They are, in fact, rather conventional liberals. But if your priority is the kids -- what a businessman would call "the product" -- then certain rules have to be changed. The federal government cannot micromanage 50 states and thousands of school districts, but it can set standards for getting its money. This, as any parent knows, is how allowances are earned.

An opportunity has been missed. I can appreciate the need to move things quickly and to avoid unnecessary political fights -- teachers unions know how to fight -- but the explosive energy of "change" is being lost. Hit rewind. It's not too late to get it back.

cohenr@washpost.com


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