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Why Santa Claus Isn't a School Reform Icon

Even as our earnest Secretary of Education Arne Duncan enthusiastically embraces Senator Tom Harkin's pander-refic $23 billion "Keep Our Educators Working Act of 2010" (don't worry, the 2011 version is sure to visit a theater near you in due course), he's insisting that this development won't compromise his credibility or effectiveness as a reformer.

Me, I'm skeptical. There's a reason that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren't usually regarded as reform-minded icons. The crux of reform is the insistence on changing the way business is done. That's much harder to do when one is proffering gifts with no strings attached, and especially when those gifts dwarf the meager allowance that parents are urging children to earn. Necessity is a crucial driver of change. Making it easier for states and districts to kick the can down the road on addressing unaffordable benefits, inefficient outlays, and problematic staffing and pay arrangements, and doing so with no strings attached, is a recipe for sustaining the status quo. That's the position that Secretary Duncan, the would-be reformer, finds himself in.

Duncan has been out cheering Harkin's bill, with the Department press mavens eagerly touting his angst. In passages that the Department has now blasted across the land, the Secretary told the Senate HELP Committee on April 14 that mass layoffs "not only [create] hardships for educators who lose their jobs and the children they teach, but the damage ripples through the economy as a whole." He lamented, "Literally tens of millions of students will experience these budget cuts in one way or another."

Duncan would have us believe this impassioned defense of the status quo won't undercut Race to the Top or the administration's reformist tendencies. Unfortunately for Duncan, the biggest beneficiary of the intended largesse--the NEA--is busy arguing otherwise. Talk about a lousy playmate. As the eagle-eyed Mike Petrilli called to my attention, the NEA yesterday sent out an ebullient press release headlined: "Most states would receive more aid under an education jobs bill than a Race to the Top grant." And the NEA is absolutely right. After all, $23 billion is six or seven times the total amount of round two Race to the Top (RTT) dollars.

The NEA's release gloatingly quoted NEA President Dennis Van Roekel's opinion that, "Now is not the time for competition. Competition is a luxury our states should have during a budget surplus, not when they are facing record deficits and slashing jobs. Our children's future should not depend on whether their state or district receives a competitive grant." Sounding a lot like the Secretary of Education, Van Roekel explained, "Students need teachers and support workers helping them, protecting them, inspiring them, and educating them every single day. We have an ailing economy, and education is the medicine. Our educators are in our schools every day administering the cure."

Man, Duncan just can't get Van Roekel to win gracefully, can he? Last year, he gave the NEA $100 billion as a get-acquainted gift. The RTT guidelines were amended last year to insist on "buy-in" from union locals, among others. He tried to take the edge off of the round one Race to the Top results by seeming to suggest that Delaware and Tennessee won as much for their ability to garner buy-in as for the substance of their reforms. And, yet, even when he's out shilling for them, he can't get the NEA to avoid an ostentatious victory dance that diminishes and trivializes the administration's prize education initiative. The result undercuts Duncan's carefully crafted reform stance. Almost makes you feel sorry for the guy.

Or at least it would if a couple of terrific sources hadn't shared the following solicitation from the Department. It was sent to "one" trusted source in each state, seeking info the Department can use to advocate for another $23 billion in fresh borrowing--despite the domestic discretionary freeze that a somber President Obama unveiled in January during the run-up to the State of the Union (whatever happened to that, anyway?). Note in the solicitation that the administration seems to presume that some states have already counted on nonexistent federal aid in building their fiscal 2011 budgets. Hmmmmm... what might have given them the idea they should do that? Hard to pose as a reformer where you're doing everything you can to marshal borrowed dollars to help subsidize the status quo. The missive read as follows:

(We are only sending this message to one person in each state. We hope you will share this message with the appropriate individuals. Thank you.)


Dear Education Policy Advisors,

As you may already be aware, last week Secretary Duncan stated before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee (testimony) that hundreds of thousands of educators and other personnel could be laid off in the 2010-2011 school year if action is not taken quickly to help states and districts cover their looming financial shortfall. Such dramatic cutbacks "not only create hardships for educators who lose their jobs and the children they teach, but the damage ripples through the economy as a whole," he said. "Literally, tens of millions of students will experience budget cuts in one way or another."

During his testimony the Secretary urged members of Congress to consider another round of emergency support for America's schools, similar to the aid provided to states through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). "If we do not help avert this state and local budget crisis," he warned, "we could impede reform and fail another generation of children."

In an attempt to learn just how deep potential cuts may be, we are hoping you may be able to quickly answer a few general questions about your state's education budget.

• What is your state's Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 PK-16 education budget allocation? (including State Fiscal Stabilization funds from ARRA)
• What is the projected FY 2011 PK-16 education budget allocation? (including State Fiscal Stabilization funds from ARRA)
Does your projected FY 2011 budget allocation include any additional aid from a new education jobs bill, and if so, how much?

We appreciate you taking the time to voluntarily answer these questions. We look forward to receiving your responses by close of business Friday, April 23, 2010. Thank you for your assistance in providing this information.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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