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On Education Spending/Facts, not faith/Obama pours money into discredited programs

Obama's plan is
ironically reminiscent of the Bush doctrine
under which ideology and
speculation trump hard evidence.

by Bruce Fuller

President Obama's massive education
initiative detailed in his proposed
budget aims at the right challenge - lifting
our schools and narrowing
achievement gaps. But huge chunks of his eye-
popping $131 billion package,
now before Congress, would go for stale federal
programs that have long
failed to elevate students' learning curves.

Mr. Obama promised a sharp break from
President Bush, who often bent
scientific findings to advance his favored
dogma. Instead, "it's about
ensuring that facts and evidence are never
twisted or obscured by politics
or ideology," Obama promised at his

Few question the president's plea to improve
the quality of our schools
and colleges, racheting-up our economy's
competitiveness. This requires
not just retooling auto factories or investing
in solar power, but
enriching the nation's human capital as well.

To boost school quality Obama declared that
he would only fund programs
that lift pupil performance. "In this budget,"
he declared before the
Congress, "we will end education programs that
don't work." Music to the
ears of the empirically minded.

But hard-headed scholars are scratching
those craniums over Obama's desire
to spend billions more on disparate federal
programs that have delivered
little for children or teachers over the past

Take Washington's biggest schools effort:
the $14 billion compensatory
education program, known as Title I, supporting
classroom aides and
reading tutors for children falling behind. A
1999 federal evaluation
showed tepid results at best, largely because
local programs fail to alter
core classroom practices or sprout innovative
ways of engaging weaker

President Bush, pushed by congressional
Democrats, expanded Title I school
aid by 50 percent as he implemented No Child
Left Behind. The result:
achievement gaps have barely budged, even as
the education attainment of
young Latino and African American parents has
inched upward.

So, under Obama's scientific principles this
moribund program should be
cut, right? Well, the president's new budget
actually expands Title I by
half again, with spending rising more than $20
billion a year. Ditto for
special education funding, upped by $6 billion
in the president's new
budget, a heartfelt effort that's shown a
modicum of success in boosting
reading skills for millions of children.

Two dilemmas already haunt the White House.
First, Obama went along with
House Democrats last month who seized on the
stimulus package, a long
awaited chance to dramatically boost school
spending and make college more
affordable. To move quickly, the president
agreed to pump-up already
authorized yet deeply entrenched programs like
Title I, whether these
well-intentioned efforts have yielded
detectable benefits or not.

Second, powerful lobbies arise every time
the Congress creates a new
program. Boosting Title I and Head Start
spending will protect or spawn
new jobs, providing urgently needed economic
stimulus. But these hikes
also embolden constituencies that fight tooth
and nail to protect their
favored program, hope they want to believe in.

Pieces of Obama's education plan are built
on foundations of solid
evidence. His proposal to expand Early Head
Start - offering prenatal
services and child care for toddlers - is
backed by experimental results
showing gains for mothers and children alike.
The benefits of Head Start
are less impressive, but significant, and could
grow if efforts to boost
teacher quality take hold.

Massive dollar infusions may elevate program
quality. But this assumes
that the daily work of teachers or tutors,
after a quarter-century of
institutionalized habits, can be recast
markedly to energize students.

What's risky is when Obama ignores empirical
rigor for programs backed by
powerful interests. He expands charter school
funding to please corporate
leaders who desire market remedies. Or Title I
wins lavish funding as
teacher unions argue that one day the program
will lift achievement. It's
ironically reminiscent of the Bush doctrine
under which ideology and
speculation trump hard evidence.

Making tough decisions with facts, not
faith, is so emblematic of Mr.
Obama's new pragmatism. But as the Congress
begins debate over his huge
education initiative, we will discover whether
Obama's commitment to
science is real, or simply rhetoric.

Bruce Fuller, professor of education and
public policy at the UC Berkeley,
is author of "Standardized Childhood."

— Bruce Fuller
San Francisco Chronicle
On Education Spending/Facts, not faith/Obama pours money into discredited programs


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