There’s No Change Here

He’s still months away from officially becoming president, but on education Barack Obama is already indicating that his brand of change is much more about high-flying rhetoric than sober reality. Whether it’s choosing a private school for his kids, or promising to expend billions to “modernize” public schools, so far Mr. Obama is turning out to be just as politicized as everyone else in Washington.

Start with Obama’s choice of the Sidwell Friends School for his kids, which was sneakily announced around 5:00 pm on Friday — perfect timing to ensure the decision got as little press as possible (not that the press was going to be tough, anyway). There is nothing wrong with the president-elect selecting the best possible school for his kids — indeed, doing so is his obligation as a parent — but as documented by Andrew Coulson, the hypocrisy is glaring for those who choose to see it.

“We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them,” Mr. Obama declared to the American Federation of Teachers this summer. But, of course, by “we” he meant “you,” just like all those folks in Congress mean when they send their kids to private institutions while opposing school choice and singing the praises of saintly public schools.

But perhaps even more aggravating than President-elect Obama’s eschewing public schools for his daughters — again, it is his responsibility to get them the best education he can — is his proposal to include presumptive billions (I’ve not yet seen an itemized breakdown of proposed spending) on public-school construction as part of his ever-growing economic stimulus plan.

As I testified to Congress earlier this year, heap all the federal cash you want on school construction, you’re neither going to fix most of the true problems nor get any kind of value for taxpayers. Indeed, in 1999 the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that it would take about $127 billion to get all U.S. public school facilities into good shape. According to School Planning and Management magazine, however, since 2000 school districts have completed projects totaling more than $166 billion. So why is our schooling infrastructure still crumbling? Because many districts build absurd School-Mahals featuring extravagances ranging from television studios to planetariums, while others are so bogged down in red tape they can’t get anything done.

Of course, as is far too often the case, it probably doesn’t really matter to Obama or others in Washington that money on school construction is almost sure to be wasted. The primary motivation behind Obama’s proposal isn’t educational, but political, with any project backed with federal money almost certain to carry union prevailing-wage requirements — a nice little hors d’oeuvres before the card check main course — and the appearance of caring and “doing something” is most important, anyway.

For a “change” administration still months away from official existence, this does not bode well at all.