- The Washington Times - Monday, April 7, 2014

President Obama on Monday opened up taxpayers’ checkbook for education and continued a hallmark of his presidency — working around Congress to dole out billions of dollars in grants to individual states and districts, as long as they enact the kinds of changes the administration wants to see.

But some analysts say the White House’s penchant to “throw money out there and hope it sticks on something useful” often doesn’t work, and there are signs that some of the money hasn’t fully achieved its purpose.

The administration’s latest effort, the $107 million Youth CareerConnect program, is designed to “deliver real-world learning opportunities for students” and offer specific training in a given field before a student graduates high school.

Mr. Obama touted the initiative at Bladensburg High School in suburban Maryland on Monday morning. The school received $7 million to, among other things, craft new biomedical programs that will let students earn college credits from the University of Maryland.

“We asked high schools to develop partnerships with colleges and employers and create classes that focus on real-life applications for the fields of the future, fields like science and technology and engineering and math,” the president said. “Part of the reason we’ve got to do this now is because other countries — they’ve got a little bit of a lead on us in some of these areas.”

The CareerConnect program follows Race to the Top, a massive increase in the size of School Improvement Grants and other examples of the administration’s strategy of using money and competition as a way to drive change in the classroom.

Thus far, some specialists say, the approach hasn’t been an abject failure, but hasn’t been a resounding success, either.

“I think they have a mixed record, frankly. Race to the Top was a little different because instead of giving everybody a little bit of money, they insisted that individual states tell them what they would do with the money,” said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who specializes in the economic analysis of educational issues.

“There are other examples where they throw money out there and hope it sticks on something useful, and that almost never works,” he continued.

Race to the Top, the administration’s signature education initiative, awarded more than $4.3 billion to 19 states, each of which submitted reform plans. The Education Department also directly awarded Race to the Top grants to five individual school districts, effectively bypassing states.

The effectiveness of the program, Mr. Hanushek said, remains to be seen as many states still are implementing their plans.

Other expensive efforts clearly have had limited success.

The administration has doled out a record $5.1 billion in School Improvement Grants, an initiative that began with the 2001 passage of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Mr. Obama dramatically expanded funding for the program in his 2009 stimulus package.

The money is designed to turn around the nation’s worst schools. A report last year on the grants’ effectiveness found that about two-thirds of participating schools saw upticks in students’ math and reading proficiency, while a third saw scores stay the same or get worse.

Mr. Hanushek said the program has been plagued by the fact that too much money — an average of about $3 million per school — is given out with fuzzy objectives.

“School Improvement Grants have some vague sense that [schools] have to do something different,” he said. “I don’t think it’s done very much.”

The administration’s education policy largely has been molded by Congress‘ inability to pass a comprehensive school reform bill, a measure that would’ve replaced the controversial and increasingly obsolete No Child Left Behind Act.

The White House offered waivers from the law — and its requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by this year — to states, provided they crafted their own education policy overhauls that met the approval of the president’s Education Department.

The waivers have given the administration, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, an unprecedented amount of authority.

“It’s given Arne Duncan more power than any other education secretary has had,” said Robert Maranto, the chairman in leadership at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, adding that he thinks the administration’s education agenda, as a whole, likely will end up “doing more good than harm.”

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