My friend Rick Hess wrote a piece a few weeks back in the National Review Online that caught my eye just before I went on vacation—so much so that I wanted to comment on it even though some time has passed. Titled, “The ‘Courage’ to Spend,” in it Rick takes umbrage with Secretary Duncan’s statement that Congress’s passage of $10 billion for “EduJobs” was “a real, real act of courage.”

I agree with Rick. I’ll be even more direct: the true act of courage would have been not to give this $10 billion at all. In the aftermath of the vote, several in Congress talked about their bold move to save education, which couldn’t be any further from the truth.

First, since 2000, the teaching force has in fact grown 10 percent even as student enrollment only grew 5 percent. Given that studies show that the theory that reducing class size will improve student learning is largely a myth, it isn’t clear this was a good use of funds to begin with—especially since studies show that having an effective teacher is far more important than the size of the class. And as Rick points out more generally, reevaluating where some of the increased spending over the last many years has gone and whether that has been smart—while a difficult thing to do—is a healthy thing to do.

Second, even if you accept the premise, the funding isn’t even necessarily doing what Congress would have liked it to do. As has been reported in a number of outlets, many states and districts are considering not using these funds as Congress had apparently intended (in a variety of ways). This sets up a potential danger if Congress learns the wrong lesson from this experience. Namely, it could cause the federal government to, in effect, micro-manage and regulate more tightly how each dollar that it allocates is spent—from what it can be spent on to processes and so forth, which could be harmful. The federal government is much more suited to focusing on the goals and outcomes it wants to see and holding to account, while freeing up individual schools and districts to find the best path to get to those outcomes given their individual circumstances—in short, focusing on outcomes rather than inputs and processes.

And lastly—but most importantly in my mind—these dollars represent borrowed money that we’re pumping into the system, and they afford the opportunity to escape—or prolong—making needed changes; charging education isn’t changing it. An argument exists that these funds are more of an economic stimulus than anything and not for educational reasons per se, but if so, that’s a difficult thing to square with the fact that they stifle needed changes in the education system that will provide for the country’s future. And as Rick points out, the pain is still coming in the years ahead; better to start preparing for this now rather than later so that districts can make wise choices as they have to cut back—and figure out ways to employ disruptive innovations like online learning so as to do more with less (see more here for example).

True courage would have been making the difficult decision today and preparing us for the future, not propping up a legacy of our past.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.