- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009


A funny thing has been happening to some of that widely heralded federal education money. It has fallen off the bus on the way to school. At least a few cash-strapped local governments, upon notification of the federal input, have eliminated an equal amount from their own budgets, hardly what the Obama administration had in mind for the $100 billion aimed at vastly improving the nation’s schools.

While the practice is not general and there are strict rules about using the federal bucks as part of the economic recovery effort, local and state officials are being forced to reduce manpower in vital services like fire and police. The temptation to relieve some of that pressure and to prevent teacher layoffs seems overwhelming and likely to grow.

For instance, the Washington-area press recently reported that suburban Loudoun County, Va., was a case in point. Upon hearing that the county would receive more than $11 million in new school money from the federal government, the county’s supervisors slashed $7.3 million from the regular school budget.

According to the reports, the board also has made it clear that schools might have to give more local money back if there are other federal contributions. Similar actions have been taken elsewhere. Arne Duncan, the new secretary of education, has warned of strong reprisals if this abuse of the president’s intentions is not stopped.

Well, good luck. Is anyone really surprised at this? The federal government has pumped huge amounts into education for years only to see the money, if not diverted for other needs, certainly not spent well by school boards, particularly in the inner cities.

Nearly every plan designed to turn Americans into the best- educated in the world has been thwarted by special interests from teachers to administrators to politicians. Former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative has been criticized and challenged from beginning to end by disgruntled unions and state and local politicians.

The District, which spends more per student than nearly anywhere else, still has one of the worst systems in the nation. It probably will get even worse because of the expected demise of a controversial voucher program that permits students to use taxpayer money to attend private schools.

So it should be clear even to Mr. Obama - who has little working knowledge of public school needs - that throwing more money at the situation by itself won’t do the job.

First of all, that model for improvement is based on a fallacy - that major inner-city public schools are bad, therefore all public systems must be bad. That glittering generality has plagued educators forever. Part of the reason is that wealthy counties with high real estate taxes usually have better schools and that is an inequality that can be solved with money or busing. (Remember that one?) That, of course, is an oversimplification that utterly ignores two huge factors - lack of parental guidance and participation and environmental deprivation in the inner cities. Sorry, Mr. President, but even your $100 billion won’t solve those problems.

It could help when it comes to controversial subjects like merit pay for teachers and regular competency tests and the elimination of most of the methods courses in teacher education. But, so far, winning major concessions from the unions for these approaches has been elusive, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope of that changing. Even though the unions are strongly supportive of Mr. Obama and the controlling Democratic Party generally, the key issues can be expected to remain unsolved.

While it may be possible to make a substantial impact with all those federal dollars, that can only happen if the economy improves generally and the pressures on state and local governments are relieved. Otherwise, threats or no threats, the Loudoun County action is bound to be duplicated one way or another. Oh, and by the way, Loudoun County has good schools anyway, so even if all of the federal stimulus was considered “new money” above and beyond the usual budget, improvement probably would not be all that discernable.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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