Opinion Blog

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.

Education Funding Opinion

My Final Word on “Edujobs": Harmful, Not Just Wasteful

By Rick Hess — August 16, 2010 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I thought I’d been pretty clear about my view of the Edujobs bill, but a flurry of interviews last week made it plain that reporters had trouble believing that I really thought the $10 billion Edujobs bill was flat-out bad for K-12 schooling. So, I want to be crystal clear. I think that Edujobs was not just wasteful but was positively harmful. And, yes, I think this even though ED promised to streamline its normal processes so that states will “receive funding as quickly as possible” and whipped up some calculations touting the number of jobs it’s claiming to save in each state.

For more than a half century, we’ve spent more dollars on K-12 schooling each year than we did the year before. The problem with this is that no one makes tough choices in flush times. I don’t care if you’re a tough-minded for-profit CEO or a cuddly koala of a nonprofit executive; nobody is eager to squeeze salaries, shut down inefficient programs, seek out savings, or trim employees when they can avoid it. A manager who tries when times are good is just a mean-spirited S.O.B. who alienates staff and creates disruptions.

This is why recessions, threats posed by new competitors, difficult fund-raising cycles, and the like are so healthful for organizations. They make possible the occasional pruning. They allow--hell, they prod--managers to tackle problems that otherwise get swept under the carpet. This permits organizations to regain their fighting trim, to reexamine old priorities, to create a leaner culture focused on productivity and performance, and to increase the likelihood that new dollars will be spent smarter.

Unfortunately, most districts haven’t had a meaningful house cleaning in decades. In my experience, the majority of districts are careless about deploying talent, undisciplined at the negotiating table, lax about pursuing operational efficiencies, and generally in need of a severe belt-tightening. This is not just about making sure resources are better used. It’s also about the lethargy that takes root in bloated bureaucracies, and how leaner, efficiency-hungry organizations create an environment that attracts and energizes talent.

During the tumultuous past decade, schools have added adults at about twice the rate they’ve added kids. Even hard-charging superintendents spend little time engaged in scrubbing; instead, they favor reform strategies that entail stacking new dollars atop existing commitments and programs. Indeed, even in the midst of the current crunch, schools have been largely buffered. For instance, the nonpartisan Rockefeller Institute reported in July that private sector employment has fallen more than six percent since December and that most state and local employment is down one to two percent--but that education-related state employment is up by two percent.

The series of edu-bailouts has made it harder for state chiefs or superintendents inclined to stand up and try to address this trend. Visions of free money--especially free money targeted for “job preservation"--makes anyone looking to squeeze payrolls look like a surly killjoy. Even if a supe knows that plumping the payroll is going to make things worse next year, lock in new benefit commitments, and make it harder to justify cost-cutting, the feds have now made it tougher for her to do anything about it. Ironically, this was pretty much the opposite of what the Obama administration did when it came to the General Motors bailout, which it has been touting as a terrific success. There, federal aid came with conditions that required new executives to downsize the dealer network, unwind unaffordable benefits, cut salaries, and otherwise use the federal largesse to get their house in order. That would have been one way to go with Edujobs or ARRA--unfortunately, the policy has instead been to subsidize the status quo.

The signaling of Edujobs is troubling, as it rewards those states and districts that had avoided unpleasant conversations by asterisking in hoped-for funds. This allowed vendors, employees, and managers to avoid serious talk of what could be cut or where new efficiencies might be found. Especially in the aftermath of ARRA, state and local officials know that the smart money next year will once again be to go with the asterisk. Those officials who do try to take budgeting seriously will have a much tougher time pushing their staff. Far more likely will be assistant supes and principals saying, “This is reallllly important stuff, we can’t afford any cuts. Rather than making any rash moves, why don’t we wait and see if any new dollars are coming...” This kind of bailout hope also teaches officials and leaders that pleading for more funds can be a more effective and easier response to tough times than putting on the green eyeshades. None of this is very conducive to responsible leadership or strategic planning.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given these incentives, it turns out that the “crisis” has been oversold. Senator Patty Murray said last week that she was voting for the bill because 3,000 teachers in Washington state were in limbo. Only problem is that this wasn’t true. The state Professional Educators Standards Board surveyed districts and reported that less than 500 teachers statewide received reduction-in-force letters last spring--and that many, or perhaps most, of those letters have since been rescinded.

So long as the bailout drawer might be open, however, union leaders who might be tempted to deal in good faith know that they will look like suckers and softies if they do so. That’s doubly true when they know that standing firm is a great way to accentuate the crisis, making it easier to plead for new dollars. High-profile disruptions are a great way to win public sympathy--whereas small-bore givebacks are boring and can too easily slip under the radar. Thus, the union preference for the ol’ “closing the Washington Monument” strategy, so-named when President Bill Clinton famously ordered highly visible national parks and monuments shut down 15 years ago during his budget standoff with the Gingrich Republicans. By making a big, visible fuss and refusing to accept modest reductions in scheduled raises, step increases, or benefits, union leaders protect their members and aggravate the crisis.

The Washington Monument ploy alleviates pressure on unions to contemplate give-backs, play nice at the negotiating table, or acknowledge the need to address outsized pensions and health benefits that are underfunded and that constitute a serious threat to school operations in the decade ahead. As the National Council on Teacher Quality pointed out in an e-mail, “Financially under the gun, many districts have found ways to avert layoffs. New York City, for example, instituted a ‘cost-of-living’ wage freeze. Other districts are asking teachers to make salary and benefits concessions--by contributing more to their health insurance plans, for instance.” These sensible measures have the ability to start promoting more responsible spending, in exactly the same manner that so many well-run public and private organizations are getting their house in order. But Edujobs makes all such efforts of this kind less likely to surface and less likely to succeed.

All of this is especially critical because we’re nowhere near the crest of the mountain on this thing. We’re really just in the foothills. Given that property valuations are lagged by several years, that states are eyeballing substantial new healthcare obligations, that pensions are massively underfunded, and that states have squeezed services across the board in the past couple years, K-12 is looking at a half-decade or more of tight budgets. Of course, by the time we face up to those, the economy will be chugging again and neither voters nor public officials will have much stomach for the essential measures they might countenance when times are tough.

Gee, I hope we really enjoy that $10 billion.

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.