The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provides nearly $100 billion to K-12 schools. Despite the rhetoric of saving new jobs and propelling “true” education reform, Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute thinks all the stimulus money may do nothing but actually hinder efforts to improve education (See: Education Stimulus Watch).
As business scholars Clayton C. M. Christensen and Michael Horn and education experts Michael J. Petrilli, Chester E. Finn Jr. and Frederick M. Hess have pointed out, budget shortfalls would have forced states and districts to make difficult but much-needed decisions, such as prioritizing programs and reconsidering staffing patterns.
For example because teacher positions have grown twice as fast as student enrollment in recent decades, America’s schools employ well over 3 million teachers. A district could have used the possibility of impending layoffs as an opportunity to remove its most ineffective teachers from the classroom or to renegotiate contract provisions on “last-hired first-fired” or performance pay.
State and districts also could have used difficult budget conditions to close persistently low-performing and under-enrolled schools, force changes in excessively expensive pension programs, or launch less labor-intensive initiatives like online learning programs. Beyond stalling these reform opportunities, the ARRA may ultimately make future reforms more difficult to the extent they fund and therefore help sustain policies and practices antithetical to the long-term improvement, such as strict salary schedules and choosing teacher quantity or quality.
One hundred billion dollars may help inoculate schools from the effects of a recession. However, it also inoculates schools from the very forces that also spur real reform. In that sense, ARRA's real legacy is to merely perpetuate the status quo.