We live in an era of crushing debt, generational theft and "too big to fail," but even the spendthrifts in Congress couldn't quite bring themselves to borrow another $23 billion to prop up bloated state education bureaucracies and teacher unions for another year. Not that they won't keep trying.
In the past week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and David Obey (D-WI) have taken to the nation's airwaves and newspaper opinion pages to plead for the Keep Our Educators Working Act, an "emergency" education spending bill. But merely calling something an "emergency" does not relieve lawmakers of the responsibility to exercise fiscal restraint.
This new bailout proposal is more evidence of what a sham last year's $787 billion economic stimulus package was. It included $100 billion for education. States proceeded to spend that one-time money on continuing expenses-mostly pay, benefits and pensions for school personnel. With stimulus money dwindling and thousands of teachers facing layoffs, states are begging the federal government for more cash.
The Keep Our Educators Working Act proves yet again how "one-time" spending becomes the new baseline budget. The federal government already plans to spend more than $44 billion on elementary and secondary education this coming fiscal year, but the bill's proponents say that isn't nearly enough.
"If there's one legitimate area where we can borrow from the future, it's education," Harkin said. "Because what sort of jobs will we have for my grandkids and great grandkids in the future if we don't have a well-educated group of young people today?"
Harkin can't seriously believe he'd do his grandkids a favor by leaving them deeper in debt to keep teacher union dues rolling in and pensions unsustainably high. All this bailout bill would do is subsidize additional reckless spending so school districts can put off necessary decisions for yet another year.
Harkin et al. are peddling more of the old demagogic mythology that claims public education is woefully underfunded. If more money really bought better results, we would have the best-educated citizenry in the world. Local, state and federal education spending in 2009 topped $667 billion, up from $553 billion just three years earlier. Spending on K-12 education rose by 32 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 1998 and 2008, thanks to No Child Left Behind and dramatically higher state expenditures fueled by capital gains tax revenues from the housing bubble.
Total K-12 enrollment grew less than 1 percent a year over the same period. In some states, such as New York, enrollment actually declined during the decade-long hiring boom. Yet student proficiency in reading, math and civics has been stagnant since 1998, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
In spite of these disgraceful results, the education establishment insists spending cuts are out of the question, layoffs would be disastrous for students and more money is the only answer.
Visiting schools in Indiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina over the past two weeks, Duncan said without the $23 billion infusion 100,000 to 300,000 public school jobs could be lost and students could lose their "favorite teachers."
In fact, the word "educators" in the bill's title is instructive. The bill doesn't require the money be spent on teachers, much less address the problem of "last-hired, first-fired," which puts seniority over quality. It's a blatant payoff to state bureaucracies and the public-employee unions that own them.
Ignore the fear mongering. If the national teacher unions and their state and local affiliates would compromise on wages, benefits and pensions, layoffs would be unnecessary. Instead, the unions insist on contracts that would be rejected out of hand by any private-sector firm, oppose merit pay and tenure reforms that foster competition and reward excellence. These unions maintain an iron grip on budgeting by contributing millions of dollars to politicians.
What the cuts really threaten is a reduction of unions' campaign contributions, largely to Democrats such as those sponsoring the bill. That's the real "emergency" the bill is meant to address.
- Ben Boychuk (email@example.com) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute's School Reform News (www.schoolreformnews.com).