Monday, November 10, 2008

The Re-Education Of Obama...

Homework For Obama

Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. (Full biography.)

Barack Obama’s unwavering discipline and focus on the common good may explain his sweep on Election Day. These bedrock tenets will soon be tested, especially whether he can resuscitate a choking economy and reassure the middle class.

The imminent danger — as education groups and Democratic lobbies instantly float well-meaning reforms — is being bumped off course. It’s a lesson so painfully learned by Bill and Hillary Clinton after over promising and under delivering on health care. Wistful think tanks are urging more spending on charter schools, entitling even affluent parents to free preschools and toning down standardized testing.

Instead, Mr. Obama’s policy team should craft stiff economic medicine, while demonstrating how education investments can create new jobs and bolster the nation’s schools. No serious reforms will lift our schools, or lower the cost of college, until we push past the worsening recession. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, watching state revenues collapse, announced last month that he must cut up to $4 billion from California’s schools and boost college tuition.

But Mr. Obama should come out of the gates with a stimulus package that would repair aging schools and quickly boost employment. Take the Los Angeles school system, which is midway through a $27 billion school construction program. So far, more than 70 new schools have opened in recent years and hundreds are being renovated. These safe and shiny schools have attracted a better trained, more diverse teaching staff. Initial evidence suggests that students in smaller, more personal high schools are outperforming their counterparts who still attend dilapidated, overcrowded schools.

An Obama stimulus package could infuse schools with $50 billion to address deferred maintenance projects, sprucing up classrooms, shrinking high schools, insulating buildings or installing double-pane windows to reduce energy costs. A recent analysis from New Jersey shows how 9,000 new jobs are created for every $1 billion invested in school repair and construction.

As Washington thaws out frozen credit markets — with the $700 billion bailout — debt service on school construction bonds could be eased. This would ensure that a bigger share of bond revenues goes toward employment creation. Now that taxpayers are protecting the jobs of well-heeled bankers, the next stimulus package must soften the recession’s fallout on middle-class workers.

More broadly, the Obama administration can then focus on strategic and long-term investments in schools, colleges and research centers. The political demise of the No Child Left Behind Act — its odds of survival continue to sink — offers the opportunity to rethink the federal role in education. Mr. Obama has wisely emphasized areas of investment that yield strong payoffs, like improving access to quality preschools for poor families.

Equally urgent, Washington should aid states in attracting smart and diverse young graduates to go into teaching. To retain them, educational institutions must become professional and supportive workplaces, not simply test-prep centers. This won’t be accomplished through attractive gimmicks, like more money for charters schools which, on balance, have yet to outperform regular public schools.

What’s key is for Mr.Obama’s transition team to stay honest to their boss’s resilient ability to screen out the static and stay focused on long-term remedies. Fresh infusions of bricks and mortar can spur job creation and inventive schools. Then, Washington can turn to human infrastructure, creating incentives and support inside schools that will enrich America’s teaching force.

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