As President-Elect Barack Obama and his Congressional allies shape — and debate — their big economic-stimulus package any day now, governors are pleading with them to include hundreds of billions for state governments that face whopping deficits. Most analysts of the stimulus measure will ask whether such spending will truly goose the economy, whether Obama kept his campaign promises, or how much of the bill is just pork. But those who worry about k-12 education should be asking: will it be good for education reform? And to date there’s ample reason to suspect that the answer will be “no”.
We cannot yet be certain what the measure will contain, though several pieces have already leaked, including investments in school construction and broadband access. These little amuse bouches will likely get lost in the shadow of the big entrée: state budget bailouts. Since most states spend one-third to one-half of their funds on education, any such “revenue sharing” will amount to a huge infusion of cash into public-school classrooms. With Obama advisers hinting that the state portion of the bailout could reach $200 billion, that probably means upwards of $70 billion, maybe $100 billion, for primary and secondary education. Considering that Uncle Sam currently contributes about $40 billion to the public schools, that’s a plate-and-tummy filler indeed.
Good deal, right? Well, the teacher unions and school establishment certainly think so. To them, the argument for sparing schools from painful budget cuts — currently appearing on editorial pages nationwide — is self-evident. One influential Washington-based lobbyist recently explained that education spending is smart because “it actually has the strongest possibility of being able to pay back” the government — when today’s students go on to become tax-generating neurosurgeons and white-shoe attorneys rather than welfare chiselers.
In concept, of course, well-delivered education eventually yields higher economic output and fewer social ills. But there’s scant evidence that an extra dollar invested in today’s schools delivers an extra dollar in value — and ample evidence that this kind of bail-out will spare school administrators from making hard-but-overdue choices about how to make their enterprise more efficient and effective.