Politicians Are SO Predictable!

The big vote-buy is on!

Today, the Obama administration will release its FY 2011 budget proposal, and while the administration would supposedly freeze discretionary spending in all areas except defense, homeland security, and veteran’s affairs, education is slated to get a huge boost in “investment.” (Politicians love  the term “investment” when discussing education spending, by the way, because it suggests a big payoff to come. That we’ve never actually realized said payoff doesn’t seem to bother them.) The proposal is expected to include a $3 billion increase for No Child Left Behind-authorized programs; $1 billion for some sort of incentive to overhaul NCLB (it’s not clear how the president can offer Congress extra money to act, but I’m sure there are details to come); a $1.35 billion extension of the stimulus-funded Race to the Top fund; and a $17 billion increase in Pell Grant funding.  In other words, education appears slated – as I feared it would – to be the administration’s post-Massachusetts, big vote bribe.

At the same time the budget proposal is coming out, the administration is also starting to release information about it’s plans for NCLB reauthorization. According to the New York Times, the basic idea will be to “change federal financing formulas so that a portion of the money is awarded based on academic progress, rather than by formulas that apportion money to districts according to their numbers of students, especially poor students.”

On the surface, it makes sense to reward high performance rather than just send money to states based on set formulas. But a little deeper digging reveals the pit below.

The performance-based funding will, it seems, be dropped on top of formula-based outlays.  If the performance-based stuff is minuscule relative to the politically more powerful, everyone-gets-a-lot formulas, it would be meaningless – mere reform-y window dressing. But what if it is sizable?

Then we have to be very concerned about how performance would be measured.

As I have repeatedly warned would happen, the administration seems determined to make adopting national standards drafted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative – an effort we are constantly told is state-led, totally voluntary, and definitely not federal – essential for getting at least some performance-based funding. Reports the Times:

[U]nder the administration’s proposals, a new accountability system would divide schools into more categories, offering recognition to those that are succeeding and providing large new amounts of money to help improve or close failing schools.

A new goal…would be for all students to leave high school “college or career ready.” Currently more than 40 states are collaborating, in an effort coordinated by the National Governors Association and encouraged by the administration, to write common standards defining what it means to be a graduate from high school ready for college or a career.

The new standards will also define what students need to learn in earlier grades to advance successfully toward high school graduation.

 So here’s what we’ll get:

If the performance-based monies are small, little incentive to pursue them and hence no major structural change, no academic improvements, but power still pulled closer to Washington. And that’s the good scenario.

If the performance-based monies are big, hello Principal Sam! But again, don’t expect much academic improvement: Just as the large majority of states have set ridiculously low standards, so would the feds. Why? Because the teachers, administrators, and other people employed in public schooling have the greatest motivation and ability to organize for education politicking, and like everyone they’d like as much money with as little outside accountability as possible.  They will ensure that national standards are hollow but the funding substantial, just as they’ve done in state, after state, after state.

At least in education, it’s not all that hard to predict what politicians will do and the failure that will come of it. But all the ”investing in our children” rhetoric can be emotionally powerful, making it hard to rally against the pols before they strike again.