One thing can be immediately said about the Obama Administration’s proposed federal budget for 2013-2014: It is rather opaque. The White House simply issued a compendium that featured the governmental equivalent of Cliff’s Notes, providing some of the highlights, but none of the details. The more-detailed version for the U.S. Department of Education — offered up on its site along with  tables— was better. The second thing that can be said is that it is hardly the call for fiscal prudence anyone in the administration would declare it to be; contrary to the arguments from those in the Democratic Party miffed with the administration’s proposal to used a chained C.P.I. formula to slow down increases in Social Security payouts, it doesn’t even deal seriously with the long-term fiscal burdens of that program or with Medicaid and Medicare (the costs for the latter two are being fueled by the president’s Affordable Care Act). But at least the administration finally offered a budget after two months of needless delay.

wpid-threethoughslogo.png*Meanwhile the Obama Administration isn’t putting additional funds into the trust that supports the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which it has attempted to shut down since Barack Obama took office four years ago. There is $17.8 million in the trust that funds it (as of this past March), according to the always-helpful Department of Education communications lead Daren Briscoe. That said, the administration is proposing to spend $2 million on administering and evaluating the program, which is actually broken out in the federal budget’s appropriation for the District of Columbia’s operations. Which is the same tactic the administration used the last time it attempted to shut it down. Expect House Republicans — especially Speaker John Boehner, who helped save the program — along with reformers in D.C. such as Kevin P. Chavous and former mayor Anthony Williams to push for more money to be put into the trust to expand the program. As they should.

The most important thing that can be said about the administration’s budget, at least on the education front, is that it is a mixed bag of smart steps and not-so-thoughtful plans that Congress should reject. Let’s start with the good stuff: The plan to spend an additional $40 million to support the expansion of charter schools is a sensible move, as is (to a lesser degree), devoting another $3 million to supporting funding for traditional district magnet schools which don’t do as much to expand high-quality options to poor and minority families. An additional $64 million for the Investing in Innovation effort also makes sense. Your editor can’t find fault with the plan to expand the Promise Neighborhoods initiative by a five-fold (from $60 million to $300 million); the proverbial devil will be in the details, especially since there is currently no data or insight on the performance of efforts funded so far.

*The proposed High School Redesign initiative may also be a good idea, depending on whether Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan focus the competitive grant program on funding start-up high schools launched by traditional districts, charters, and universities for kids forced to attend the nation’s dropout factories — including 25 percent of black students — as well as high schools with graduation rates between 60 and 80 percent that are often not much better than dropout factories either. [The effort itself, if approved by Congress, may partly mollify civil rights-based reformers and groups focused on high school reform such as the Alliance for Excellent Education, which have been dismayed with the administration with how it allowed states receiving No Child waivers to report inaccurate graduation rates.] While one understands why the administration may end up selecting existing high schools and encouraging the districts that run them to partner up with organizations and businesses that can help revamp them, the long-term record on such turnarounds (including initial data from the School Improvement Grant program, now called School Turnaround Grants) shows that such a focus will end up wasting $300 million in taxpayer dollars. That’s not needed. Reformers who understand the need to focus on launching new high schools will need to get into the game early to shape the administrative rules that will govern the first round of competition.

The administration made a smart decision to not propose increased spending on Title I and other formulas-driven programs that make up 84 percent of federal education spending. Considering that formula-driven funding has proven to be ineffective in spurring states and districts to improve teaching and curricula for poor and minority kids — and actually encourages districts to shortchange kids by simply using the subsidies to replace state and local dollars — the Obama Administration should have proposed to move at least half those dollars into a competitive grant model similar to I3 and the president’s signature Race to the Top initiative that could include rewarding states and districts for improving math and reading instruction in the early grades as well as end the overuse of suspensions and expulsions. The administration’s decision to not increase special education funding is also sensible. As Dropout Nation made clear last month, special ed funding at both the federal and state levels have fueled the over-diagnosis of learning disabilities that have led to kids being condemned to academic ghettos that cheat them out of high-quality education. The Obama Administration move would have been even more worthy of applause if it proposed to cut special ed subsidies by at least 15 percent.

Then there are the less-thoughtful decisions. One can understand the goals behind the proposed edition of Race to the Top focused on spurring overhaul of the nation’s universities. But the efforts — along with the additional $451 million being proposed — could have been better-used to focus on revamping university schools of education, whose failures in recruiting and training aspiring teachers are an underlying culprit of the nation’s education crisis. But that’s nothing compared to the $2.4 billion being proposed by the administration to launch the Preschool for All program, which would focus on developing prekindergarten programs that would be directly linked to traditional district schools. This goal sounds laudable until one considers that traditional districts are still struggling in providing high-quality teaching and instruction in the early grades. The $2.4 billion would have been better off being used to launch a new initiative funding intensive reading remediation for kids in the early grades.

What makes the Preschool for All plan even more counterproductive is that the Obama Administration is also proposing to spend an additional $1.6 billon on the Head Start program, which has been demonstrated over and over again to be ineffective in improving literacy and numeracy in its current form. The administration should have taken the bold step of proposing to move the agency from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education, and then step up its current re-competition effort. An even more thoughtful step would have been to voucherize most of the $8 billion spent on the program (while using the rest to spur states to improve school data systems to include data on prekindergarten programs that would help families make smarter choices.  Those steps would do more for improving the futures of children than the administration’s current plan.

Then there’s the additional $125 million being proposed for the School Turnaround Grants program, the new name for the School Improvement Grant effort. Keeping the program around as is makes no sense at all. As the Obama Administration’s own initial report on SIG revealed, just three out of every five middle- and high schools being turned around under the program have made some sort of progress in improving student achievement in reading; this makes sense because it is extremely difficult to help children turn around their performance after being subjected to years of educational neglect and malpractice. Unless the schools engage in intensive reading and math remediation with students, simply engaging in some curricula changes  (and offering some additional training to laggard teachers) will do nothing to help these kids onto the path to college and career success.

Based on evidence that 70 percent of the elementary grade failure mills being turned around under the effort have shown single- and double-digit improvements in reading and math performance, future rounds of STG/SIG should be geared toward overhauling elementary schools and toward providing children in the early grades with the reading and math interventions they need. But that’s if one believes that the program is worth keeping in the first place. The reality is that school turnarounds, like those in Corporate America, are unlikely to yield real results because they are overseen by the very districts that managed the schools into academic failure in the first place. Expecting a failing district to somehow revamp failing schools — especially when it isn’t overhauling its own operations — makes so sense. Shutting down STG/SIG just makes better sense.

Finally, there are the missed opportunities. One area lies in improving data on Title VII spending targeted to meeting the federal government’s constitutional obligation to American Indian children and their tribes (along with other programs serving Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives). It is hard for reformers focused on Native education to either push for better results or even defend the funding so long as the Obama Administration continues to not extend to those programs the emphasis on data that it has brought to the rest of its policy efforts. Meanwhile there is the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, which as one of the two education systems directly operated from the federal government, offers numerous opportunities to both advance systemic reform on behalf of Native kids and make up for the more than a century of deliberate educational malpractice and neglect that date back to the opening of the notorious Carlisle Indian School 134 years ago. While it is nice that the Obama Administration proposes to spend an additional $6.7 million on its more than 173 schools it operates or oversees, it doesn’t propose a Race to the Top-like program that would encourage American Indian tribes such as Navajo Nation to undertake efforts such as fully putting schools it operates within BIE under their control. Nor is the additional funding enough to help BIE advance its stated goal of putting all of its schools under one accountability and school data system that would bypass those of traditional districts. On this front, the Obama Administration could have — and should have — done much better.

And when one considers that the Obama Administration didn’t even bother to use the budget as an opportunity to push for a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act that would have expanded and sustained accountability — as well as pushed for the necessary end of formula-based funding — it is clear that its plans are less bold than they could have been. There’s a lot from President Obama’s budget that could have been done to build upon its otherwise laudable success in advancing systemic reform through Race to the Top and other competitive grant initiatives — as well as strike a blow for what will increasingly be the new normal in education spending, with fewer dollars being spent and more emphasis on results. But at least the president offered a budget proposal. I guess.

*Updated to reflect additional information picked up this morning.