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Homework for Obama

Posted: 2008-11-10

This is from the Education Watch blog at the NY

Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and
public policy at the University of California at

Barack Obama̢۪s 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. Obama̢۪s policy team should craft

stiff economic medicine, while demonstrating how

education investments can create new jobs and

bolster the nation̢۪s 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

California̢۪s 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 recession̢۪s 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


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 won̢۪t be accomplished through

attractive gimmicks, like more money for charters

schools which, on balance, have yet to outperform

regular public schools.

What̢۪s key is for Mr.Obama̢۪s transition team to

stay honest to their boss̢۪s 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 America̢۪s

teaching force.

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