Tuesday, March 10, 2009

An encouraging sign but what is the trade-off?


A few comments about this:

Among the principles Obama laid out were:

_Challenging states to adopt world-class standards rather than a specific standard. Obama's economic stimulus plan includes a $5 billion incentive fund to reward states for, among other things, boosting the quality of standards and state tests, and the president said the Education Department would create a fund to invest in innovation.

_Improved pre-kindergarten programs, including $5 billion in the stimulus plan to grow Head Start, expand child care access and do more for children with special needs. He also said he would offer 55,000 first-time parents regular visits from trained nurses and said that states that develop cutting-edge plans to raise the quality of early learning programs would get an Early Learning Challenge Grant, if Congress approves the new program.

_Reducing student dropout rates. To students, Obama said: "Don't even think about dropping out of school." But he said that reducing the dropout rates also requires turning around the worst schools, something he asked lawmakers, parents and teachers to make "our collective responsibility as Americans."

_Repeating his call for everyone to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training, with the goal of highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.

On charter schools, he said the caps instituted by some states on how many are allowed aren't "good for our children, our economy, or our country."

Obama also spoke at length about what he described his policy toward teachers, what he called an 'unprecedented commitment to ensure that anyone entrusted with educating our children is doing the job as well as it can be done." In up to 150 more school districts, Obama said, teachers will get mentoring, more money for improved student achievement and new responsibilities.Also, Obama said, "We need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching."

First this is an exciting development from our President, but as with all things, I tend to err on the side of caution. The language that he uses is always very specific, but the details of the programs themselves leave to much to the imagination. Obama is a big-government liberal in that he always wants to allocate the money for his ideas before we are given any specificity of detail.

The first point, to create through the DOE, a fund to invest in innovation. He wants us to move from a "specific standard" to a "world class" standard. What type of standard Mr. President? This is a straw man that Obama is setting up using rhetorical flourish. No, longer will we hold anyone to a specific standard. How can anyone of us oppose more massive federal intervention in the states education establishment if the point is to make it world class. This fund is supposed to incentivize states to bring themselves to a world class standard. This isn't the point of the fund. NCLB at its core was a way to spook the teachers unions to shape up or lose federal funding. Obama is rolling this back. Bet on it.

The second piece of this new Obama plan seems to be a way to cut off at the knees home-schooling parents before they start there own curriculum. Being in a business where I deal daily with parents home-schooling their children, this must be a frightening proposition. Most homeschool parents will tell you that they start homeschooling long before the state mandates that there children be graded and tracked by a municipality. I believe that the idea is to take the choice of curriculum for pre-K kids out of the hands of the parents, making the possibility that they will be home-schooled when they enter kindergarten less likely. We need more freedom in education. If the state wants to help parents with special needs children, we should create a home-schooling tax deduction. This can be done at the state level as property taxes tend to go towards education. More freedom and liberty for the parents, less FED involvement. Reward them at the state level, not from a $5 billion slush fund.

The third part, reducing drop-out rates, should be addressed with expanded voucher programs. Kids who want to drop out of school should have a meeting with the parents, yeah they are important, and the school administrators. The children who are dropping out should be given the opportunity to continue their education in a school which may be more conducive to their learning needs. Give the parents the power to make the decisions for their children. This will be best addressed by expanding choice for the parents.

President Obama also wants to have the largest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. This is possible. What we don't need is the largest proportion of underwater basket weaving post-colonial feminist program graduates. We need to incentivize the areas of our economy that we need. Engineers, nurses, teachers are all going to be in high demand. Offer free in-state tuition to any individual who wants to pursue one of these careers. To back up their end of the bargain these individuals would have to volunteer 25 hours a week in the fields which they want to go into. This is a more free-market solution than saying "oh, I Hope and Change on a Rainbow" that we will have more sub-continental African studies majors.

With charter schools and the teachers unions, we know that the President is just blowing smoke. The number of charter schools should be expanded, but the President is postulating that when card check passes that the charter schools will be forced into unionization, just making them another arm of the EDUCATION ESTABLISHMENT. This is comical if it weren't so frustrating.

In all, everything that President Obama spoke about sounds all well and good but will be shaped not by the vision he lays out now, but how the field will look in several years. This is disingenuous. He knows that the establishment in education will never go for the more market oriented parts of his agenda and that squishy conservatives (Brooks, Buckley, Noonan etc.) will champion the more market oriented parts of the policies as they believe in magic. They are not looking at the Grand Picture of what this country will look like in several years when these plans come to fruition. We need to fight for the market oriented parts of his proposals and see, if card check gets defeated, if he will still champion market solutions in education. My guess is no.

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