New York Times Editorial
April 9, 2009 -- The $100 billion in federal stimulus money that Congress has set aside for education could get the nation’s flagging school reform effort — and its schools — back on the right track. For that to happen, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will need to tighten the preliminary eligibility guidelines he issued last week.
The purpose of a $49 billion stabilization fund, which is part of the education stimulus, is to protect schools from damaging cuts and layoffs while preserving the momentum toward reform. Mr. Duncan made a wise move by requiring states to finally publish data on their teacher evaluation systems — and to show how student achievement is weighted in those evaluations.
If properly spelled out and enforced, this provision would allow parents to see that most teacher evaluation systems are fraudulent and that an overwhelming majority of teachers are rated as “excellent” even in schools where the children learn nothing and fall far below state and national standards.
The guidelines also contain far too many loopholes. Unless they are closed, Mr. Duncan could be squandering the rare opportunity the stimulus has given him to demand fundamental changes. Under the guidelines, states could get two-thirds of the money in the first round — in some cases as much as 90 percent — merely by making “assurances” that they will change destructive policies, like shunting the least-qualified teachers into schools serving the poorest and most ill-prepared children.
Only in the second round of financing will the states be required to provide detailed analyses of what they do and how they operate. Federal officials say this was necessary to get the money out in a hurry, but it costs Washington the leverage it needs to speed reforms.
Consider the way the states have gamed the crucial provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires them to place a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom. The states have simply reclassified inadequate teachers as well qualified, without demanding that they pass competency exams in the fields they teach.
Some members of Congress are also upset about guidance language that has been widely read to mean that the states can actually shift money from education to other areas. The final version of the guidelines should make crystal clear how the states can and cannot spend this money. Mr. Duncan should also make it unequivocally clear that states that flout the law will forfeit stimulus money and become ineligible for any share of the nearly $5 billion competitive grant fund that Congress has placed under his control.
Many states and school systems will want to claim federal money while preserving the disastrous status quo. Mr. Duncan will need to resist those pressures while pushing the country toward the educational reforms it desperately needs.