Just days before leaving office President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan called his $7 billion attempt to turn around failing schools “arguably the biggest bet” made by the administration.
Duncan was confident in the bet. He felt that the money, given to schools through School Improvement Grants, would make a tremendous dent in the number of failing schools in America. Duncan said he believed that the grants could turn around 1,000 schools each year for five years. “We could really move the needle, lift the bottom and change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children,” Duncan said.
But the bet didn’t pay off. A federal analysis of the program found that math scores, reading scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no better than similar schools that didn’t receive money from the program. In short, billions of dollars were spent with absolutely no results. The worst part is that millions of students continued to languish in poor schools—their futures withering before our very eyes—while the Obama Administration tested its theories.
“This outcome reminds us that turning around our lowest-performing schools is some of the hardest, most complex work in education and that we don’t yet have solid evidence on effective, replicable, comprehensive school improvement strategies,” Dorie Nolt, an Education Department spokeswoman said after the results were released.
It also reminds us that government efforts to pump schools full of cash has generally failed to move the educational needle. Since the 1970s total education spending on a student from kindergarten through high school rose by 192 percent while math scores rose by 2 percent, and reading scores by 0.7 percent.
Sadly, we already knew all of this. We knew that previous school turnaround efforts failed to work at any scale when attempted at troubled schools. We knew that there is a lack of evidence about what contributes to a school’s success, or the features that are common to a turnaround effort. And we knew that huge chunks of the money ends up going to line the pockets of consultants, the ranks of which have exploded given the massive infusion of funding.
The Obama Administration did it anyway. And then, just as they were headed out the door, they released the data showing that their big bet was a big loser.
Their loss may be Republicans gain. This Congress and the Trump Administration now have the opportunity to tell a powerful story – that the decades-old attempt at “turning around” bad schools has failed again and that a new approach is needed, one that focuses on giving children options to get out of bad schools rather than a strategy that focuses on pumping money into them.
What better time than now, at the tail end of School Choice Week, an enormous movement of 21,000 events involving almost 17,000 schools that focus on improving and expanding educational options for America’s youth?
“Think about it. We live in a time when you can use your phone to customize your life. So why would we limit you to a certain school in a certain zip code, even if that school is failing you? That is just wrong,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told a crowd. “In America, we think much, much bigger than that. In America, we believe that the condition of your birth does not affect the outcome of your life.”
Or at least it shouldn’t. To that end, Republicans are committed to expanding the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides tuition assistance to low-income children to attend alternative school arrangements such as charter schools. Additional changes will inevitably be needed to empower parents to choose, and thereby demand, excellent school. Everything from ending residential assignment, to money-follows-the-child, to closing perpetually failing schools needs to be on the table to ensure that no child falls through the cracks.
America now has the opportunity to move toward expanded educational choice, it’s just disappointing that it only came as the result of millions of dollars wasted and millions of children left behind.