Obama is poised to sign into law the $789 billion stimulus bill agreed to by Congress this week. The plan has a noteworthy amount – close to $100 billion according to the Christian Science Monitor — of federal education spending. While education spending does stimulate the economy, to be truly effective in raising incomes in the long term, the money should be used to improve education quality.
As our recent volumes on education show, in its current form education perpetuates rather than compensates for existing income inequalities. This happens for three reasons: 1) the K through 12 education system is simply not very strong and thus not an effective way to break the link between a poor parental background and a child’s eventual success; 2) because K–12 education is financed largely at the state and local level, resources devoted to education are closely linked with where people live so poor children tend to go to poor schools; and 3) access both to a quality preschool experience and to higher education continues to depend heavily on family resources.
In the policy brief, “Opportunity in America: The Role of Education,” Isabel Sawhill proposes a four part strategy to increase the ability of education to raise income and increase mobility: 1) investment in high quality preschool; 2) setting clear (and perhaps federal) standards for what children K–12 should know; 3) increasing federal funding of education and linking this funding to improved school performance; and 4) encouraging greater use of proven instructional methods.
It is unclear at this point whether the billions set aside for education in the current stimulus package does all this. For example, early education is funded, but through the Head Start program which has not proven as high quality as either the most successful demonstration programs or some of the programs used by more affluent parents. Federal money for education is provided – in unprecedented amounts – but just a small portion is tied to uniform standards for performance and it unclear whether any is linked to mandatory use of research-based curricula.
Education can be instrumental in helping students gain the skills they need to become self-sufficient, working adults. However, it must be quality education. The jury is still out on whether the stimulus bill making its way to President Obama’s desk creates the sort of system that will produce results.
Based on The Future of Children: Opportunity in American, Eds. Isabel Sawhill and Sara McLanahan and “Opportunity in America: The Role of Education,” by Isabel Sawhill.