While short-term funding to prevent layoffs of teachers at a time when state and local tax receipts are low may seem better than the hiring of new teachers, stimulus funding is unlikely to help here either. Property taxes, the main source of education funding, will not recover to previous levels for several years, at a minimum: Home prices in most regions have not even stopped falling, let alone begun to approach their previous levels (the national Case-Schiller Index is down 32 percent from its 2006 peak). Because tax assessments lag behind property values, even if home prices do make a full recovery in some areas, towns and states may not see their education funding recover until the end of the decade. Postponing difficult decisions with two years of federal aid is bad policy. Fiscally responsible school districts, when granted money for the same purpose by the 2009 stimulus package, chose instead to spend the money in other ways, including one-time lump bonuses to teachers.
Undirected flows of money to school districts, or even the promise of such (since the bill may not pass), make it more difficult for communities to exact competitive deals from unions, a key element of any education reform, even to Obama. As Frederick Hess argues, “Even if union leaders are inclined to cut a deal with their districts, they’re going to look like saps to their membership” if they take anything less now. Two years of federal Danegeld to teachers’ unions will invite further assaults on school districts in the future.
Of course, the Obama administration knows all of this. The education sections of the American Jobs Act are not good policy, but they are good politics. Like the bill as a whole, the education initiatives are not intended to pass Congress and become law; they are intended to create progressive political momentum for Obama’s reelection. The administration’s earlier education policies have strained relations with teachers’ unions, a key Democratic political asset. Promising tens of billions of dollars in funding for schools and burdening school districts with future obligations is, primarily, a gift to those unions.
The education elements of the bill are not just poorly designed aspects of a bill that never stood a chance, however. They are a disturbing development for education reform: The president has promoted some worthwhile initiatives, such as merit pay and charter schools, and thus far been willing to confront teachers’ unions, one of American education’s biggest problems. Unfortunately, this act threatens to undermine Obama’s education efforts, not least by tying them to yet another instance of wasteful federal overreach. In debates, several Republican presidential candidates have already begun to paint Obama’s generally respectable reforms as more excessive meddling by the federal government. The serious flaws of the American Jobs Act threaten to politicize education reform, on which there had been hope for a bipartisan consensus.
By including educational pork spending in the new stimulus package, Obama will hardly help, and may in fact harm, America’s schools.
— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow.