For those of you who are NPR buffs, you may have heard Neil Conan’s interview of Arne Duncan yesterday on Talk of the Nation. If you haven’t, it’s a good listen (or read, if you prefer). I especially appreciate Conan’s pressing of inconsistencies. In particular, he starts out right away asking whether the “education bailout” would be tied to reform at all. Duncan tries to skirt around this a few times, but finally relents and says “no.” He claims that we need to give this money to save jobs, since so many districts are cutting teachers due to financial troubles, but at the same time keep pressing a reform agenda. Basically, we want to keep education alive, but still have that carrot to make it get better. This sounds great until you look at the numbers a la Andy Smarick. Raise your hand if you know how much the Race to the Top money is worth. Right, $4.35 billion dollars. It sounds like a lot of money, until you compare the other money coming from Congress to the states for education. The first big wallet opening was in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – a whopping $75 billion. On top of that, Duncan is pressing for this second bailout of an additional $23 billion. That’s $98 billion that is no-strings-attached. States and districts don’t have to change their policies a bit to load that into their pockets. Now how big does $4.35 billion sound? States may be offered a carrot, but it’s only after receiving a 5-course dinner.
My other big bone to pick with Duncan is his view on funding. He says that not only does most of the money for education come from the local level, it should. I can not even begin to think of how the person running our federal education plan can possibly really believe that. After he just gets through talking about how students right outside of Chicago have double the funding per student as those he presided over as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he says that funding should come from the local level. Something does not compute here. Is he saying that it’s OK for those kids from rich families to have better funding for their schools? This seems preposterous to me. It’s one thing to say that educational decisions should come from the local level. I don’t personally agree with that, but I can understand where people are coming from when they say that. But to say that the bulk of funding should come from the local level? That makes absolutely no sense to me. I worked in a school in Arizona for two years that got less funding than another school in the exact same district, simply because money generated from income taxes was higher at that other school. The rich stay rich and the poor kids have to make due. Duncan talks about creating incentives for teachers to go into urban and poverty-stricken schools. How about at least allowing for some fair competition? If a failing school doesn’t have the resources to compete with a great one, why would a teacher want to go there? I hear lots of hope for change, but I’d like to see them put their money where their mouths are – and more than just 4% of the money.