Friday, September 11, 2009

Abandon All Hope (For Reform) Ye Who Enter Here!

At first glance, one might dismiss a recent policy brief authored by a former Bush Administration official as a partisan diatribe against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Obama Administration. After all, a chief conclusion of the brief authored for the American Enterprise Institute by Andy Smarick (former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Spellings-era Education Department and in 'W's White House with the Domestic Policy Council), is: "It appears all but certain that the ARRA’s $75 billion in formula-based education programs are a lost cause for education reform. These funds have been used almost exclusively to fill budget holes, and cash-strapped states and districts will likely use what remains of these funds for similar, reform-averse purposes."

Abandon all hope (for reform) ye who enter here!

That quoted summary language in the paper *is* perhaps a bit over the top. A "lost cause"? Really? And that's certainly been the takeaway of some blog accounts of this paper (such as this). But that's not really what Smarick is saying nor is it the most important part of this AEI brief. And, as much as he is making that point, his 'lacking in reform' criticism is directed more at the 50 states than at the federal government.

Economic stimulus and a minimization of a short-term funding cliff were among the main aims of ARRA and its education-focused formula dollars. I don't think anyone seriously expected differently. If you read the ARRA web page, it largely spells this out. Now, the Education Department did envision that State Fiscal Stabilization Funding would be used to promote reform as well, and despite an initial look by the GAO, some dollars may accomplish reform, but how on earth could there yet be any real evidence of reform let alone impact when the 2009-10 school year has just begun in most places?!? In addition, as Smarick notes, the economic downturn and its effect on state budgets was far worse than anticipated at the time that ARRA was enacted in early 2009, which lessened the likelihood of these dollars doing anything less than filling holes.

Smarick's take on the competitive aspects of ARRA -- the Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation (I3) funds -- is generally fair and balanced. He raises important questions about the general risks to any reform push, and specifically to ARRA. Smarick identifies several factors that may reduce the likelihood that competitive dollars will further education reform: on-going state budgetary challenges, resistance to specific reform components, and lack of faithful and vigorous implementation. He warns of "Trojan horse" applications where states will seek the money, but won't use it for reform. Of course, unmentioned are a whole host of other potential roadblocks, such as resistance from school districts, lack of buy-in from teachers and school administrators, lack of capacity to implement reforms, consultants and subcontractors who can't deliver promised expertise or technical assistance, data systems that cannot accurately match student and teacher data, etc.

Read the brief. Or check out a summary at Flypaper.