Friday, October 09, 2009


By Ben Boychuk | OpEd in The Daily News

Ben Boychuk is a fellow of the Claremont Institute's Golden State Center for State and Local Government. Readers may contact him via e-mail him at

10/9/09 -- STATE and local control of education passed away this week. Although struggling on life-support for nearly two decades, it finally slipped away without much notice amid the fanfare over yet another plan to reform America's public schools. The cause of death? "Innovation."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced the federal government's priorities for its new $650 million "Investing in Innovation" (I3) grant program, part of the Education Department's $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" initiative. Duncan has called Race to the Top education reform's 21st century "moon shot." But it's tough not to conclude that Race to the Top, which Congress included in the massive $780 billion stimulus it passed in February, is another variation on the dreary failures of the past and a fatal blow to federalism.

Federal officials have always overpromised and underdelivered on education reform. "We're making an unprecedented investment in cutting-edge ideas that will produce the next generation of school reforms," Duncan said, repeating what every U.S. education secretary since the Carter administration has said about the latest, greatest federal school reform scheme.

Throwing more money at failing schools is no remedy. Neither is giving away more and more autonomy to federal education bureaucrats. But having learned nothing from 25 years of false starts and failures, from "A Nation At Risk" to "No Child Left Behind," educators and policymakers cannot see that I3 and Race to the Top are no different.

So why all the hype and the fuss this time? Because I3 and Race to the Top are about as close to purely discretionary spending as a federal education program gets. Even though the feds spend about $38 billion a year on K-12 education, the vast majority of that money is earmarked for mandatory spending, such as Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

What makes Race to the Top even more alluring is that some of the reforms that Duncan is pushing are quite sound when they're instituted at the local and state levels. According to Education Department application rules, a state must submit plans to use student performance in teacher evaluations, remove charter school caps, and restructure failing schools before they are rewarded any money.

Truth is, federal dollars always come with strings attached. Always.

Most federal education funding hands states a pile of money with the goal of achieving certain outcomes, such as raising test scores and closing the achievement gap. Race to the Top forces states to make sweeping changes that may or may not make sense with no guarantee they will receive so much as a dime of new federal money.

And the government's definition of "innovation" is quite narrow, beginning with innovation's source. These aren't exactly grass-roots reforms. The Education Department this summer produced a list of 19 of its own ideas for what counts as innovation and told states to adopt or lose out.

Bottom line: The federal government will dole out the funds based on whether states actually change their laws and policies to conform with Barack Obama's education agenda.

In California, the home to the largest student population in the country, state legislators are busily rewriting state laws to qualify for a slice of those federal millions. Gov. Schwarzenegger in August called a special session of the Legislature to tackle the changes necessary to let California compete for the money early next year.

"This isn't about the money," said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, last month. Romero is partly right. California, which spends more than $50 billion a year on K-12 education, is competing for no more than $500 million from that $4.35 billion pool. Distributed evenly among the state's 6.23 million students in 1,039 school districts, the share amounts to $80.25 per student - and that's before the state education bureaucracy takes its cut.

No, this isn't about the money. It's about control. In fact, the federal government only contributes about 8.3 percent of total K-12 spending. But those federal dollars buy far more than an 8.3 percent share of oversight. Californians are losing control of how they educate their children.

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