WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wants to do more than save teachers’ jobs or renovate classrooms with his economic recovery bill. He wants to transform the federal government’s role in education.
Public schools will get an unprecedented amount of money — double the education budget under George W. Bush — from the stimulus bill in the next two years. With those dollars, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan want schools to do better.
From Duncan’s perspective, the sheer size of the stimulus bill makes it a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put lasting reforms in place.
“It’s also an opportunity to redefine the federal role in education, something we’re thinking a whole lot about,” Duncan said recently. “How can we move from being (about) compliance with bureaucracy to really the engine of innovation and change?”
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The bill includes a $5 billion fund solely for these innovations, an amount that might not seem like much, considering the bill’s $787 billion price tag. But it is massive compared with the $16 million in discretionary money Duncan’s predecessors got each year for their own priorities.
“It’s unprecedented that a secretary would have this much money and this much latitude,” said Charlie Barone, director of federal policy for the group Democrats for Education Reform.
Congress laid out broad guidelines for the fund in the stimulus bill that became law Tuesday. But it will be up to Duncan and the team of advisers he is assembling to decide how to dole out the money. They have until Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins, to start distributing the dollars.
What would the fund pay for? Rewarding states and school districts that are making big progress.
For example, Tennessee recently overhauled its graduation requirements and academic standards as it works to boost student achievement. As part of that effort, officials want more rigorous state tests; Tennessee has been criticized because students pass state exams with flying colors, yet they do poorly on well-regarded national tests. Better tests cost money.
Or in California, school officials would like to expand the ConnectEd curricula, now in 16 high schools, that links academics to actual work in aerospace, biomedicine and other careers. The program is aimed at getting students ready for college and keeping them from dropping out.
It doesn’t come cheaply; teacher training, equipment and technical help all are costly.
“We ought to be able to take what’s working in the very best schools and make that common practice across all schools,” said Ted Mitchell, president of California’s state board of education.
Also, at the urging of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, the fund sets aside $650 million for school districts or districts in partnership with nonprofit groups. This could include charter schools or other programs with a track record of boosting achievement.