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Homework for Obama

Publication Date: 2008-11-10

This is from the Education Watch blog at the NY
Times.

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


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 â€" as education groups and
Democratic lobbies instantly float well-meaning
reforms â€" 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 â€"
with the $700 billion bailout â€" 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
â€" its odds of survival continue to sink â€" 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 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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