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Editorial: A Vital Boost for Education

Resource type: News

The New York Times |

Original Source

The stimulus measure being debated in Congress contains a vital $140 billion education package that would more than double the Education Department’s discretionary budget and give the federal government unprecedented leverage over a school-reform effort that has been controlled primarily by the states. Congress has to make sure, however, that the spending does not actually undermine reform. The money needs to be targeted in a way that forces the states to adopt reforms required under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

For that to happen, Congress would need to embrace the stronger House measure, which was framed with an eye toward forcing the states to end the shameful practice of shunting the least qualified teachers into schools that serve the neediest students.

Beyond that, Arne Duncan, the education secretary, has a burgeoning discretionary budget that can be used to reward those states that embrace reform and prod those states that continue to lag. Mr. Duncan’s main goal should be to replace a wildly uneven patchwork of standards with a coherent system of national standards and tests that would allow parents to know, at last, how their schools compare with schools elsewhere in the country.

Both bills in the House and Senate include a $79 billion “stabilization” fund that is supposed to help the states avoid financing cuts and layoffs in education. Both allow for renovation aid for crumbling schools, more spending under Title I, which gives help to disadvantaged children, as well as under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is aimed at disabled children.

The purpose of the measures is to protect schools from damaging cuts and layoffs while preserving the momentum toward reform. But that won’t happen if the states adopt the familiar strategy of cutting their own contributions to education — and shifting the money to other uses — while using federal dollars to plug the hole. That could result in a decline in total financing for education despite the mammoth federal expenditure. Worse still, money that moves from the education fund to say, road building, is often lost to the schools forever.

Both bills require that the states that access the stabilization money maintain education finances at sensible, specified levels. The Senate opens the door for trouble by allowing the secretary of education to waive the requirement. The House bill wisely does not open such a loophole in the maintenance-of-effort requirement.

The Bush administration failed to enforce a crucial provision of No Child Left Behind that requires states to finally give poor and minority schools a fair share of experienced, qualified teachers. The House version of the stimulus bill requires states that get the new money to comply with the law. If the Senate fails to embrace this provision, it would be selling out impoverished children.

The House bill also contains crucial funds for performance-based pay for teachers and higher quality tests and for data systems that will, with luck, give us an accurate view of how students, schools, districts and states are actually doing.

Congress is doing the right thing by helping the states stave off layoffs and other problems. But the stimulus will fail Americans in crucial ways if Congress squanders the opportunity to push the country’s schools toward long-overdue reform and allows the education money to be turned into more pork-barrel spending.

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