Economic Recovery, Educational Renewal

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Few educators or political junkies wagered that Barack Obama would lift the schools early in his presidency. An imploding economy, two military fronts, and a sickly health care system would trump the urgency of education reform.

Well, all bets are off.

Mr. Obama, preparing to take the oath of office as the nation’s 44th president this week, suddenly put the schools front and center in sending a more than $700 billion stimulus package up to Capitol Hill. He has pledged to put people back to work by “modernizing schools that are failing our children.” Aiming to create 3 million jobs and lift the economy onto sustainable foundations, the new president has promised to rehabilitate the nation’s schools by repairing buildings and installing energy-efficient systems.

The massive public-works bill that will now be negotiated with the new Congress includes more than $25 billion for the schools. “We were told to be ambitious and bold,” said one member of the Obama transition team, under condition of anonymity.

Yet nagging questions are surfacing as debate unfolds over how to strengthen public infrastructure. Just how much capital can local school systems efficiently translate into job-creating repair and conservation projects? And will this massive investment complement or distract from Mr. Obama’s long-term reform agenda, from elevating young children’s learning to raising teacher quality?

“The new president should avoid symbolic gestures, such as buying even more computers for schools. Instead, he should stay focused on the key elements of infrastructure: bolstering school facilities staffed by able, committed teachers.”

Plenty of other groups are vying to score billions of dollars from this unprecedented public investment. Cash-strapped governors who caucused with Mr. Obama in Philadelphia before the holidays listed more than 3,000 quick-and-dirty highway projects. But this forward-looking president says he wants to go beyond filling potholes and fueling suburban sprawl, simply patching the tentacles of endless freeways.

As he contemplates the enormous task ahead, at least one behemoth institution—the Los Angeles school district—is showing that his emphasis on education infrastructure can work. Midway through a $26.7 billion program to erect new schools and renovate old ones, Los Angeles educators are leading a massive public-works program, one of the most ambitious since the nation’s interstate highway system.

Designing new schools takes time, but three-fifths of the Los Angeles funding goes for refurbishing facilities, adding preschool classrooms, and sprouting green spaces in the often-gray inner city. Since 2001, the school system has created more than 240,000 jobs, from plumbers and carpenters to janitors and day laborers.

And students are feeling the benefits as huge high schools—once containing over 5,000 students—are whittled down into smaller, more personalized campuses. Initial evidence shows more robust learning gains for those attending the new, human-scale schools.

The city’s teenagers no longer assume they must attend “ghetto schools,” as one described his daily surroundings to a research colleague. And innovative facilities, such as classrooms linked to the downtown Orthopaedic Hospital, move students into responsible community roles, aiding patients and senior citizens.

The Los Angeles school system, the nation’s second largest, still lists over $800 million in deferred-maintenance and green-school projects that are “on the shelf ready to go in 2009, if we had additional funding,” according to its facilities chief, Guy Mehula.

These projects are far more than cosmetic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in five students nationwide sits in a classroom with such poor air quality or ventilation that the incidence of asthma and other chronic health problems is discernibly higher.

Will this sudden focus on school facilities simply distract President Obama from his expressed interest in crafting an effective federal role in education, accenting innovative organizations and upgrading the teaching force?

Or, instead, might his short-term focus on infrastructure set down cornerstones for a sustained reform strategy? Mr. Obama’s advisers, for example, are proposing $3 billion to upgrade and expand preschools. “He’s promised to expand early-learning programs by $10 billion a year,” said one transition official. “This is a down payment.”

Congressional leaders could also move to upgrade charter schools serving poor communities. Mr. Obama has pledged fresh funding for charters that boost student achievement, and the scarcity of facilities dollars may help explain the lagging performance of many charters, according to recent findings.

Advancing innovative facilities will require novel funding channels. Preschool repair and expansion, for example, would be funded through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program under the Obama plan, moving dollars to community nonprofits, not only to school districts. Community Development Financial Institutions, credentialed by the Treasury Department, already lend capital to charter schools in several states and could aid governors in quickly creating jobs.

Still, Mr. Obama, the former community organizer, may face opposition from teachers’ unions that prefer to keep infrastructure dollars in traditional schools—even though nonprofits often spread dollars over more jobs and reach the most vulnerable, less-skilled workers.

Renovations across all schools, if crafted mindfully, could professionalize teachers’ daily workplaces, from ensuring clean classrooms to carving out spaces to plan collaboratively. Such improvements could stem high rates of teacher turnover and upgrade the quality of teaching, as one key Obama education adviser, Linda Darling-Hammond, has long argued.

Some in Washington are asking why less than 10 percent of Mr. Obama’s investment is pegged for upgrading schools, especially after his invocation of education as crucial to the task of building a sustainable future, rather than propping up an exhausted past.

In contrast, five Democratic governors pressed their eye-popping New Year’s resolution on Mr. Obama earlier this month: Add $250 billion to backfill state education cutbacks. Certainly well intentioned, this proposal would imprudently boost California’s school spending by a third, even if spread over two years.

The new president should avoid symbolic gestures, such as buying even more computers for schools and fretting over the fact that “the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption.” Instead, he should stay focused on the key elements of infrastructure: bolstering school facilities staffed by able, committed teachers.

The urgent bottom line is to promptly create jobs and backstop the income of working families. State leaders and local educators should organize to do just that while creating more engaging schools, energized by a young president who, against long odds, is taking the long view.

Vol. 28, Issue 18, Pages 29, 44

Published in Print: January 21, 2009, as Economic Recovery, Educational Renewal
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