Bring Out Your Dead

Friday, April 3, 2009
"Bring out your dead," shouts the dead collector in Monty Python & The Holy Grail.

Swift & Change Able tossed state education reform onto the cart in its post yesterday ("ARRA Stabilization $: Education Reform Is Dead, Long Live Education Reform"). Well, maybe reform is not completely dead, but it looks like it certainly may be with respect to the state stabilization funding in the federal stimulus legislation (otherwise known as ARRA, or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).
As it turns out, there are some fundamental flaws either in the stimulus bill itself, or in the guidance issued yesterday by the Department of Education, that render it virtually useless as a vehicle for statewide education reform.

This may have merits in terms of providing a revenue stream for states and districts to backfill budgets and pay off debt. Things are tough out there, and this dynamic is perfectly understandable. But in terms of driving change in the 4 areas that Congress specified - standards and assessments, teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of teachers, data systems, and turning around underperforming schools - there no longer is any there there.

The stakes for the Secretary’s $5 billion "Race to the Top" fund have been raised substantially. In fact, it is now the only education reform game in town.
Ed reform's last, best hope is ARRA's $5 billion pot of incentive funding--the $4.35 billion "Race To The Top" fund for which states are eligible to apply and the $650 million What Works and Innovation Fund for which LEAs and partnerships led by nonprofit organizations are eligible.

I generally agree with this perspective. Back in late January ("Overstated"), I chided politicians and media outlets alike who were either hailing or warning of a new era of federal influence in education based on this infusion of new resources.
Listen, short of the inclusion of some major new education policy in this stimulus bill (which won't happen) - greater accountability for spending, such as Title I and Title II dollars, for example - how is this piece of legislation going to "profoundly change" the federal role in education? Answer: Apart from coughing up some new federal resources at a time of need, it's not. It won't fundamentally change the business of teaching and learning without further legislative and policy changes. We still await action on ESEA reauthorization - the next best hope for positive changes and needed reforms to current federal law.
While I'm not backing away from that basic position, I am buoyed by what Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said to date about using the twin incentive funds to truly reward results and innovation, and to build upon it. If that's how it plays out and the standards for receiving these monies remain high, ARRA truly could advance state and local education reform.

"I'm not dead." We'll just have to wait and see won't we?