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On their way out the door, Team Obama admitted its efforts to fix public schools were a complete failure
Thus, Betsy DeVos and a different approach.
Much of the enthusiasm for Barack Obama back in 2008 came from wide-eyed idealist liberals who were convinced that many problems could be solved if only the federal government would commit money and attention to them. In few areas was this sentiment stronger than in public education, where liberals have long believed schools are simply underfunded and insufficiently supported. Turning on the spigot of dollars from Washington, they thought, would make all the difference if it could be combined with the steady hand of a real education pro who wanted to save and strengthen the schools, not attack them (like they think Betsy DeVos wants to do).
Obama's choice of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, along with the establishment of new reform programs and a fresh infusion of federal cash, was supposed to be just the thing that would inject new life in public education and turn around failing schools.
You didn't hear much about these efforts from the media during the Obama years. In fairness, public education is a difficult subject to cover substantively because activity is disperate and hard to analyze, and when they do cover it we tend to get fluffy human interest stories and very little in the way of real data to see if anything is changing.
But a day before leaving office, the Obama Administration actually released a report on what it had accomplished in this area . . . or should we say, not accomplished:
Once elected, Obama wasted no time: He tapped fellow Chicagoan Arne Duncan as education secretary. Duncan, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and whose mother ran an after-school tutoring program for disadvantaged students there, was then head of the city's school system. And he'd already made a name for himself as a reformer by experimenting with various school turn-around interventions – most notably closing schools that were both underperforming and underenrolled.
Together, Obama and Duncan convinced Congress to super charge the School Improvement Grant, a program aimed at overhauling states' worst schools by giving it $3 billion from the economic stimulus. And along with the nearly $4 billion in Race to the Top funding, the two set out to radically improve the country's poorest performing schools – an effort Duncan described as one of the "biggest bets" of the administration.
"We could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children," said Duncan at the time.
As one of Obama's longest-serving cabinet heads, Duncan oversaw the program for seven years before stepping down, at which point the federal government had directed more than $7 billion to the School Improvement Grant, and millions more to smaller-scale programs, like My Brother's Keeper and Promise Neighborhoods, aimed at picking off smaller parts of the larger school turnaround effort.
But just one day before the end of Obama's tenure at the White House, the federal government issued a report that showed that despite the intense focus and surge in resources, the majority of failing schools were hardly any better off.
Using data from nearly 500 schools in 22 states, the report, published Jan. 19 by the Institute of Education Sciences, showed no evidence that the program had significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation or college enrollment.
So there's a waste of eight years and billions of dollars. No improvement whatsoever. Thanks Obama!
But anyone could and should have seen this coming, because the problem with public education isn't that there's too little support for educational institutions. It's that there's too little commitment to serving students and their families. The education establishment has become a fiefdom whose feudal lord is its own bureaucracy, committed above all else to its own self-preservation and the resistance of any change. The Obama/Duncan attempt to change it by pouring money and support into it was bound to fail because all that did was fortify the fiefdom.
President Trump's appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is, above all else, a recognition that the whole idea of how we improve education needs to change. Absent the complete elimination of the Department of Education (which I and many others would favor), DeVos's appointment is about putting the emphasis on students and families - and their needs - not on the needs of the educators.
This is why all the shrieking against charter schools, vouchers and school choice is so astoundingly insane. These things give options - often a way out - to kids who desperately need it. And that includes a lot of kids and families living in poverty, who would otherwise have no choice but to stay in the failing public schools near where they live. Betsy DeVos catches a lot of flack from the left for being rich, and for being able to afford private schools for her kids. Yet what she's trying to do with policy is make the same options available to people who aren't rich.
That may not be good for the education establishment, but it's great for students and their families. And if you think it would be better to go back to the Obama approach, try checking out the Obama Administration's own report on its efforts. They failed. It's time to try something else. And putting the emphasis on students and families rather than teachers' unions and bureaucrats is the perfect place to start.
Dan's new novel, BACKSTOP, is a story of spiritual warfare and baseball. Download it from Amazon here!