Why Education Reform Can’t Wait

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Noam Scheiber says it makes sense to pursue health care reform at the same time as economic recovery, but that the Obama administration should consider sidelining the rest until the crisis can be dealt with, but he felt Larry Summers mounted a convincing case for energy. Still:

I was less persuaded by the case for doing education reform now. (Though, interestingly, David Brooks, who made the case for paring down even before Galston did this week, seemed high on Obama’s education reform plans–and precisely because he thinks they’re ambitious.)

On Brooks, I think this just shows that we shouldn’t take his timing objections very seriously. Brooks’s views about education policy are, on the merits, close to my views and close to Obama’s views. Consequently, he likes Obama’s education reform agenda. Brooks’ views on other matters are more conservative and he objects to them on the merits, but he’s pretending to be concerned about the timing. Feh. Meanwhile, one could argue for pursuing education reform now on the grounds that education reform is very important. But I think there’s a real technical reason for avoiding delay.


The first aspect of this is simply that the main pillar of federal K-12 education—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act whose most recent re-authorization was dubbed No Child Left Behind—is due to be reauthorized. Which is to say re-written. Congress and the White House can just stall on this, but since a bunch of people want to see a whole bunch of things changed, and since the schedule says it’s time to change the law, it would take time and political capital to maintain the status quo. Better to spend that time and political capital on making change for the better.

The second aspect of this is that macroeconomic considerations have compelled a very large short-run increase in federal education spending. The reason for this is that probably the least controversial aspect of federal fiscal stimulus is the idea that aid should be sent to state and local governments. The reason for that, in turn, is that such spending isn’t even really new net public sector activity. Rather, the federal government is stepping in to reduce the extent to which state and local governments need to enact pro-cyclical anti-stimulus in the form of spending cuts. Meanwhile, the main non-entitlement item in state budgets is education. So in practice, increased financial aid to states primarily entails a substantial shift in financial responsibility for education toward Washington. This by no means requires a rethinking of federal education policy, but it does make thinking harder about how that money is used a fairly natural complement to the macroeconomically dictated trend toward the federal government being responsible for more of the money.

Last, we’re talking about very different policy silos. It’s not as if Arne Duncan can tell the permanent staff at the Department of Education to lay off the schools and spend time thinking about AIG. The president probably should not, personally, be letting school reform take up a great deal of his time and mental energy. But the president had plenty of time in his past life as a State Senator, a U.S. Senator, and a Presidential candidate to outline his philosophy on this subject and he has the backbone of an education policy team in place. Having that team twiddle their thumbs won’t accomplish anything—they may as well press forward.