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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Washington’s Love Has a Price

By Rick Hess — October 07, 2013 3 min read
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When it comes to the federal government shutdown, K-12 advocates and reporters are having a tough time finding a good angle. The reality is that federal spending is only about a tenth of K-12 spending, and much of that money has already been allocated. That’s why most edu-commentary on the shutdown concerns the effects on Head Start, the service academies, and higher ed lending. Now, for what it’s worth, I wholly agree that it’s ridiculous and destructive that federal employees and those who depend on federal programs are caught up in this turbulence.

But a larger point is getting lost. The shutdown is an extreme version of federal politics at play, but it also illuminates how dependence on federal funding inevitably sucks a sector or program into the vortex of national politics and federal politicking. A supersized version of this is playing out in health care, where policy thinkers, advocates, and practitioners (of all stripes) find their ideas caricatured amidst the swirling political currents that surround the Affordable Care Act. Proposals to expand coverage or contain costs are now infused with talk of death panels, the Tea Party, and one’s views of the President or Ted Cruz. Friends and colleagues who work in health have noted how much easier it was five years ago to have a measured discussion or to put forward policy proposals.

This is hardly a surprise. We saw a similar (if much more modest) version of this in education a little over a decade ago, with No Child Left Behind. Federal politics are polarized and driven by mega-issues, scandals, sound bites, and fierce lobbying. The price of federal funding is entering this whirlpool, and more federal support means more federal rules and more exposure to all the currents at play in D.C. It means that anticipated funding is subject to national tides, and that federal lawmakers will have a raft of temptations and pressures to write rules about what schools and colleges should do with federal funds.

Keep in mind, for instance, that, just a few years ago, the Obama administration projected domestic discretionary spending would be $1.2 in fiscal 2014. Now, with sequestration and other cuts, it’s projecting a total of more than $200 billion less, of just under $1 trillion. Programs dependent on federal largesse have found themselves enormously vulnerable to these cuts.

Today, K-12 is largely buffered from the shutdown because of its reliance on state and local funds. Of course, even so, in return for their ten cents on the dollar, the feds have subjected schools and systems to expansive, invasive rules governing use of funds, special education, teacher evaluation, school accountability, school turnarounds, and much else. Indeed, as Louisiana state chief John White noted last week at AEI, that modest federal contribution has allowed federal lawmakers and bureaucrats to drive budgeting, staffing, programming, and school improvement efforts in schools and districts across the land.

Despite all this, education advocates seem forever disinterested in the downside of federal funding. This has been notable among those who’ve embraced the Obama administration’s plan for more federal funds for pre-K, as none seem unduly interested in the bait-and-switch of time-limited federal funding or what conditions federal officials might attach to those funds. Charter advocates seeking earmarks or new dollars have similarly seemed utterly unconcerned on this count. Would’ve been good for Common Core advocates to keep in mind when cheering their inclusion in Race to the Top, the $350 million Congress earmarked for the consortia, or the Core’s central role in ED’s NCLB waivers. And we’ll just skip past those well-intentioned souls who have put forth various proposals to nationalize education funding. Anyway, this is all really just a reminder to be careful what you wish for--and to keep in mind that federal funds and support can come at a steep price, however free and easy they appear in the moment.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.