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Education Funding Opinion

The Education Advocates’ Battle Cry: “Let’s Push the Kids Off the Fiscal Cliff!”

By Rick Hess — December 10, 2012 4 min read
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Look, let’s keep this simple. As a nation, we’re spending vast sums we don’t have. In every year of President Obama’s first term, we borrowed more than $1 trillion. Today, the federal debt stands at $16.4 trillion (we spend $220 billion a year just paying interest on the debt.) If we extend the Bush tax cuts, once again prolong unfunded “patches” to avoid pain associated with the alternative minimum tax and Medicare physician payments, and fail to make the cuts dictated by sequestration, the debt is expected to rise to more than $22 trillion by 2020. (I’m okay with going over the dreaded “fiscal cliff,” even though the tax increases and spending cuts are expected to trim next year’s GDP growth by a half-point, largely because doing so would cut that projected debt down to only $14 trillion in 2020.) Who’s to blame? All of us. We’re enjoying services that we don’t want to pay for--which means we borrow the money, then leave the bill for our kids (that’s right, to the same children we claim to love so much). Our profligacy is not just an economic concern; it’s a vast, disheartening moral failing on our part.

Unfortunately, self-serving politicos, eager to play to our basest instincts, have done everything they can to help us avoid these simple truths. President Obama, in a particularly craven turn, has suggested that the primary question is whether to raise $1.6 trillion over the next decade by boosting taxes on “the wealthy” (defined as the highest-earning two percent of households). The other popular suggestion in edu-circles is that we cut defense spending. However, given our vast federal budget, 50 billion next year and about 500 billion in defense cuts over the coming decade doesn’t amount to a whole lot--in fact, it narrows next year’s projected deficit by just 5%.

Now, I’m cool with raising taxes on high-earners and cutting defense. In fact, let’s just presume we get Obama’s full slate of tax increases and keep all the defense cuts threatened by sequestration. All of that, combined, will reduce next year’s projected $900 billion in borrowing by a little less than 20 percent. So, once we do all that, what about the other 80 percent of next year’s shortfall? The solution is pretty straightforward. We need to get less and to pay more. When it comes down to it, there are only three real choices: raise taxes on folks besides the top two percent of households; reduce growth in the giant entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid); or cut other domestic programs. That’s it. And given that most mandatory government spending now involves assistance for seniors, tackling Social Security and Medicare has to be a big piece of this.

Given those options, I’d like to think that self-styled education advocates, knowing how much they claim to care about our nation’s youth, would be educating the public, pushing for tough choices, and telling seniors they should be trying to do their share. But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, education advocates seem to be doing their best to fan the conviction that we can keep cheerfully living beyond our means. Their slogan seems to be: “Screw the kids, let’s keep borrowing.”

Just last Friday, the ironically named Forum for Education Investment and the Committee for Education Funding issued a press release solemnly announcing that “58% of the public supports raising taxes for those with incomes over $250,000 versus 42% who favor across-the-board spending cuts” and that, if there needs to be cuts, “57% say the cuts should come from defense spending versus 43% who say the cuts should come from education.” That’s called clobbering a strawman. Okay, let’s stipulate those tax increases and defense cuts--now what?

Just before Thanksgiving, three major unions, including the NEA, launched television ads urging Congress to “protect” Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and education. The AFSCME, SEIU and NEA released a poll showing that shows a majority of Americans opposed cutting these programs to balance the budget and that “more than half of Americans want to see the wealthy pay their fair share.” (I wonder if the “fair share” question mentioned that the highest-earning five percent of households already pay more than half of all federal income taxes?) The NEA’s director of government relations helpfully explained, “Members of Congress have to ask themselves who should make the bigger sacrifice--America’s school children and middle class families or corporations and wealthy CEOs?”

Meanwhile, we don’t see much attention to the fact that, as former Brookings Institution fellow Julia Isaacs has pointed out, the federal government now spends about $7 on seniors for every $1 on children--even though the poverty rate among children is higher. That’s why I’d like (and expect!) to see these education advocates calling for across-the-board tax increases and entitlement reform. Instead, they’ve linked arms with powerful seniors’ lobby to protect popular (if unsustainable) programs, excuse all but the wealthiest households and our troops from any sacrifice, and kick the can down the road.

In all of this, would-be edu-advocates are shamefully catering to the public’s worst instincts. I get it. It’s fun to live on borrowed money. That’s why solid majorities oppose broad-based tax increases as well as cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security--even while the feds are borrowing more than one in every four dollars we spend. This won’t go on forever (it can’t, just mathematically speaking), but it doesn’t bode well. And I’d like to think those who claim to be in it “for the kids” would feel obliged to step up for the kids. Not so much.

I can only hope that our kids are one day more concerned with our well-being than we seem to be with theirs.

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.