Editorial: Dollars and change

Default Lines for eSchool News, print edition, Jan. 1, 2009—According to legend, President John F. Kennedy sometimes would tell visitors to the Oval Office, “I certainly agree. Now, let’s see if the government agrees.”

It was the 35th president’s way of alluding to the shadow that falls between the idea and the reality. It’s not likely to be different for our 44th president.

Nobody knows what reality will bring, but oh, what a difference a day makes—Tuesday, Jan. 20, that is: Inauguration Day. Nowhere is the distinction clearer than in the President-elect’s ideas for education.

After eight years of “assessment by autopsy”—the approach critics claim characterized No Child Left Behind under Bush—it appears a new era is dawning, a time of “well-child checkups,” as some members of the Obama team reportedly like to put it, determining what a child needs, then delivering it straightaway rather than waiting for the student to fail before attempting to apply the remedy.

New players are taking the stage in Washington, but Team Obama appears to have learned at least one valuable lesson from the outgoing administration.—namely, how to capitalize on a crisis. Our current crisis provides a means of swiftly enacting policies that otherwise might get delayed and diluted on their way through the legislative sausage factory.

Our pressing need to stop America’s slide into deepening recession (or worse) provides the urgency to justify bold, swift action on the domestic front. In this, as in most other aspects of the transition, the Obama team appears well prepared.

Since leaving as chief of staff in the Clinton White House, John Podesta, who now heads Obama’s transition team, hasn’t been idle. In 2003, he founded the Center for American Progress (CAP), one of those Washington think tanks that out-of-power policy makers use to plan the strategy their side will unfold at the next opportunity.

On Dec. 5, Podesta’s CAP issued a breath-taking report, “How to Spend $350 Billion in a First Year of Stimulus and Recovery.” This, by the way, would likely be followed by a second year of expenditure at the same level. And that would be on top of the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector already in place—some $1.4 trillion at least. (Note: One billion is a thousand million; one trillion is a thousand billion. In 2007, the U.S. gross domestic product was $13.8 trillion)

How on earth could we afford to spend that much? Well, one way would be to stop funding the war in Iraq. (Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calculates Iraq will cost us $3 trillion.) Or, we could press on with the classic approach—borrow and spend. Suffice it to say, it could be done, one way or another—and, according to CAP’s report, it has to be done: “Without action, there is too great a risk of further collapse and an ever-worsening spiral of job loss and economic decline.”

The plain fact is, however, that even in Washington, it’s just not so easy to spend a few hundred billion dollars—at least, not wisely—especially in the short-term. The challenge, of course, is to make expenditures significant enough in the near term to jump-start the stalled economy by investing in what will return national dividends in the long term. That’s just the sort of thing CAP has been studying ever since the start of the Second Gulf War.

Since at least last summer, Team Obama has been coloring in the contours of those strategies. In broad strokes, here’s a sketch of the CAP plan: 

• $55 billion to spur demand and assist those most in need.
• $70 billion in aid for states and localities.
• $175 billion for infrastructure investments in stimulus and recovery, including $100
billion in green-job creation.
• $50 billion for tax-cut stimulus.

For more details, it would be well worth your while to read the CAP report by Will Straw and Michael Ettlinger. Assuming (as I do) that the CAP report presages Obama’s program, education and technology are core components of the President-elect’s stimulus and recovery plan. Significant portions of the $70 billion proposed for states and localities would be used for education. In addition, nearly $30 billion is slated for new federal education programs—including $7.25 billion for green school construction and renovation and $12.75 billion to help schools pay for deferred maintenance. Another $5 billion is proposed for enhancing America’s broadband internet infrastructure, which would hold direct benefits for schools and colleges, especially in rural and low-income urban areas. 

It’s well past time to invest seriously in our schools, our infrastructure, our daughters, sons, and grandchildren. But it will take more than just money to effect the change we need.

Last November, nearly 67 million Americans (53 percent of the electorate) voted for change. Later this month, Barrack Hussein Obama will take the oath of office. But a new president won’t bring the change we need. As Obama said many times on the stump, “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.”

On Jan. 20, the wait will be over, and the long, hard job of restoration and progress will begin for us all.


 Cap Report