This Jonathan Alter piece from Newsweek about Obama's education strategy calls for the White House to get tough with teacher unions. No more "peanut-buttering" money nice and even across the multigrain face of America's school systems. It's time to get tough with teachers, find the ones that are working and axe the ones that are failing. How do we do it? We use the education stimulus spending.

But wait, I thought the point of stimulus spending was to save jobs. Can that really be true of every industry except education? In a recesion, is it worth it to save the job of a bad teacher?


Obama's answer seems to be: No. That's what I take away from Arne Duncan' plan to direct $10 billion dollars to states that can demonstrate they are turning things around -- Duncan calls them "Race to the Top" funds. From an education policy perspective, this makes sense in two ways. First it's basic Econ 101: You want to incentivize success, not just paper over failure with more funds. Second, Duncan wants to identify the programs that are actually succeeding and give them money to continue with their education experiments. It's the classic example of states serving as laboratories of democracy and the government serving as the leading scientist of the research company that owns the labs. The mad-scientist-government figures out what's working and the other lab states look on and see what they can do to turn their own system around and pick up the incentive cash to do it.

It's important to distinguish this philosophy from the No Child Left Behind money-for-success strategy. In Bush's vision, school districts got money if they demonstrated that their students were passing their own state standards. The problem is that, despite the honorable attempt to peg spending to district achievement, the law ended up encouraging states to drop their standards. A lower bar meant more students could jump over it, and in came the money to programs that didn't deserve to be rewarded for anything except their own low expectations. In the Duncan version, the government reserves the right to choose which programs get the money, which requires states to calibrate their education system to please a national rather than state standard.

But in the midst of an economic downturn, I foresee some difficulty with the Obama-Duncan plan to dangle billions for schools that demonstrate education gains at a time when education spending is going to be slashed by state governments. It raises, I think, a question of difficult balancing: Do you spend money now to keep even terrible education districts afloat or do you go forward with a policy that is designed to create a more Darwinian race for limited government funds? Alter is absolutely right that the Rahm Emanuel koan -- A crisis is a terrible thing to waste -- would dictate the latter. But when push comes to shove and the status quo "educrats" bear down on Duncan, we'll see whether we find those bad teachers get their money from the stimulus or from unemployment benefits.

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