Federal File

October 23, 2002 1 min read


The number was an eye-opener: $9 million.

That’s how much state legislatures cut from their education budgets this year, Democrats in Congress said Oct. 8, including a disturbing $6.8 billion from K-12 education.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, the leading Democrats on the committees that focus on education in each chamber, used those numbers at a news conference to call for more federal education spending to bolster sagging state budgets.

One problem: Thirty- seven states actually increased spending on education this year. And that count is based on the figures released by Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller.

So, given that, how did the lawmakers—well, their staffs actually— come up with the $6.8 billion K-12 cut? Through the magic of assumptions.

Hang on, this gets a little complicated.

Basically, staff members for Mr. Miller took the total amount states spent on K-12 education for the 2001-02 school year—$200.8 billion—and increased it to account for projected inflation and enrollment growth to $212.3 billion. Then they subtracted the actual amount legislatures approved for this school year, $205.5 billion, and—voilà!—a $4.7 billion increase becomes a $6.8 billion spending cut.

Of course, that ciphering depends on picking percentages for inflation of actual costs and actual enrollment. And here, there’s a problem.

The staff aides said costs for educating each student should go up about 5.3 percent this year. But a look at their source, a chart from the Department of Education’s Web site, shows they used the estimate of how much costs increased between the 2000-01 and 2001-02 school years. One year early, in other words.

Use the proper inflation figure from last school year to this one, about 3.7 percent, and the spending “cut” decreases to $3.5 billion and change. That’s an error of about $3.3 billion. And even in Washington, $3.3 billion still means something.

Rep. Miller’s office did not dispute the mistake, but minimized its relevance. What matters, spokesman Daniel Weiss said, is the “weak federal commitment” to education.

“The bottom line is that the states are cutting spending in reaction to the weak economy,” he said. “The reality is unchanged no matter what year you look at.”

—Ben Wear