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Rick Hess Straight Up

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.

Federal Opinion

...And Now for ED

By Rick Hess — April 16, 2010 4 min read
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This morning, I hit on the week’s first big win for the teachers unions: Florida Governor Charlie Crist vetoing an important teacher pay bill. The week’s second big win for the unions was our earnest Secretary of Education’s craven decision to curry favor with Senator Tom Harkin and the “Deficits? I don’t care about no stinkin’ deficits” crowd by endorsing Harkin’s $23 billion scheme to ladle out new, borrowed dollars so that our nation’s educational leaders might kick the can on tough choices down the road another twelve months. Because it would be “emergency” spending, Harkin sees no need to pay for or offset the cost of his “Keep Our Educators Working Act.”

Harkin explained, “If there’s one legitimate area where we can borrow from the future, it’s education, 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 imagines, I presume, that our kids and grandkids will one day thank us profusely for putting them even deeper in debt so that districts can avoid trimming unaffordable benefits, taking a hard look at operations, closing underutilized facilities, or seeking more cost-effective ways to deploy staff.

Duncan didn’t just grimace and let Harkin preen or grudgingly go along. Instead, he gave Harkin the full, moony-eyed “You go, girl.” He declared, “We absolutely need a jobs bill. It’s the right thing for our country; it’s the right thing for our economy; it’s the right thing for our children.” He added, “We are gravely concerned that the kind of state and local budget threats our schools face today will put our hard-earned reforms at risk.” Yeah, that’s the problem. Districts are so busy taking a scalpel to budgets and repurposing dollars based on cost-effectiveness that every nickel they cut comes from the marrow. Not.

Let’s recall that, as education savant Charles Miller has pointed out, after adjustment for inflation, total spending rose by about 39 percent between 1998-99 and 2008-09. K-12 expenditures rose by about 32 percent, and higher education outlays by about 51 percent. Meanwhile, total K-12 enrollment grew less than 1 percent a year in the past decade, while total undergraduate and graduate enrollment in degree granting institutions has grown at about 3 percent per year. In other words, districts have been receiving more and more dollars and only getting a few more kids--and yet, unlike tens of thousands of non-profit and for-profit entities, they claim they can’t possibly find smart cuts to make. (See the National Center for Education Statistic’s “Mini-Digest of Education Statistics 2009,” page 42).

Duncan’s suck-up is especially egregious on three counts. The first was his tough talk last year. He promised us he’d scrutinize ED’s budget, ensure that the stimulus dollars funded reform and not just jobs, and would call to account states which didn’t spend responsibly. And he and the President promised that states ought to regard last year’s stimulus as a unique response and not the start of a new normal. So far, this has amounted to little more than hot air.

Second, is it just me or didn’t President Obama pledge less than three months ago, in the run up to the State of the Union, that he was launching a three-year spending freeze on all non-security discretionary spending? Is Duncan’s announcement this week the Secretary’s own freelance capitulation to “spend, because it feels soooo good,” or does it represent another step in a full-blown retreat from the President’s already milquetoast discretionary freeze? Maybe it’s just me, but I swear I remember our President saying that we were done kicking the can down the road on tough decisions and, just recently, that he’d reluctantly embraced the huge outlays of borrowed funds in the stimulus and was now eager to “work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.”

Yet, in just the past few months, we’ve had a couple pricey “emergency” outlays for unemployment that the administration has championed, and now this new Duncan-endorsed proposal--all with nary a word about actually, you know, paying for these goodies. (I’m also curious what all this would do to the leverage of round two RTT, if states start anticipating that they’ll be guaranteed an amount that’s vastly larger than any possible RTT pay-out, with no obligations and no questions asked).

Third, this is all especially maddening because the administration purposefully encouraged states and districts to spend the last year focusing on new programs and initiatives in order to compete for Race to the Top, distracting attention from strategic efforts to rethink costs, reprice benefits, or identify efficiencies. In conjunction with last year’s $100 billion in federal education stimulus, the administration subsidized unaffordable outlays and discouraged attention to cost cutting.

I can only hope and pray that if we persist in our quest to become Greece (which is in the throes of an international crisis brought on by out-of-control deficits) that, at a bare minimum, Secretary Duncan is going to insist that this new aid comes with conditions that will promote reform and fiscal sanity downstream. The money could be made contingent on states auditing their teacher benefit systems and providing a clean accounting of the shortfall. Congress could require that receiving states embrace the “GM bankruptcy” model for persistently low-performing districts and statutorily modify contractual restrictions governing teacher evaluation, dismissal, assignment, and compensation. Or the dollars could fund competitive grants that would, hopefully, benefit from the missteps made in the first go-round of Race to the Top.

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.

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