The Agenda

Republicans Must Embrace Efficiency

In a recent column (“Republicans Must Embrace Education, Not Tax Cuts”), Edward Glaeser argues that Republicans should emphasize education over tax cuts. This seems reasonable enough. But what troubles me is that many will and have interpreted Glaeser’s column to mean that more spending is the way to improve educational outcomes.

Glaeser does make a number of points that we can all embrace: 

Years of research have taught us that teacher quality is paramount; this, too, can be a Republican issue. Candidates should fight to ensure enough school competition so that excellent teachers get top salaries and mediocre teachers get fired.

Republicans should also embrace the promise of new teaching technologies, such as New York’s School of One, which uses computers to personalize lessons. Republican candidates should offer an optimistic vision of a stronger and fairer country built on skills and entrepreneurship.

Yet some of these politicians seem to think that everything will be fine as long as Washington abandons its push to improve education. This is a path to mediocrity.

As Margaret Spellings, who served as secretary of education under President George W. Bush and is my colleague on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation United States Program Advisory Panel, told the New York Times, “We tried that for 40 years,” and “the results were far from stellar.”

Washington needs to be involved to ensure localities don’t put unions ahead of children. Massachusetts lifted its unfortunate cap on charter schools partially because of the pressure created by the Race to the Top program. A Republican policy could be even more effective.

Moreover, he is careful not to explicitly call for increased education spending:

I agree with Republican leaders who want to make the government more efficient and reduce our tax burden, but lower taxes mean less spending, and this is far from a silver bullet for the economy.

This is absolutely right. Less spending is far from a silver bullet. Spending that is deployed more effectively is closer to the mark. (As always, the marked difference in educational outcomes between Massachusetts and New Jersey is instructive.) The question, however, is how we can encourage more effective spending. Cutting taxes in itself won’t do the trick, as starving public services of revenues without empowering public sector managers to deploy resources more effectively will just lead to things like LIFO layoffs, i.e., the firing of young (and in some cases talented) teachers to retain old (and in some cases not-so-talented) teachers. 

What we really need is collective bargaining reform. Unfortunately, collective bargaining reform has just been dealt a severe blow in Ohio, with the repeal of SB 5, and in New Jersey, where conservatives failed to make significant gains in legislative elections. Recognizing the importance of these battles, organized labor outspent and outorganized groups representing the interests of taxpayers. 

Walter Russell Mead recommends a shift in strategy for advocates of public sector reform:

Strong arguments can be made for cutting spending and changing work rules for public workers. Public sector unions remain the main obstacle to these changes, and they continue to have a largely negative influence on state politics and budgets. Yet voters, especially in many Midwestern battleground states, are small-c conservative and likely to remain so — while they support lower taxes and balanced budgets, they also oppose radical change. Reform-minded state governors should balance budgets and take tough stands in negotiations, but they should move at a speed public opinion can bear. Voters are unhappy with the status quo, but they are equally wary of overreach. This is a sentiment that conservatives ought to respect.

It is worth noting that both Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo and Republicans like Chris Christie have found ways to push hard at the bargaining table and make real cuts without forfeiting wider support in their states. Festina lente, as they used to tell me in Pundit High: make haste slowly. The facts will ultimately do the talking even in labor negotiations. Voters may not want to eliminate public sector bargaining rights in many states, but neither do they want large tax hikes so that the unions can have everything they want.

I’m not as sanguine as Mead about this incremental strategy, but it might be the only option for reformers. One thing I’ll add is that reformers should at least fight to make it easier for union members to opt-out of funding political activity with their dues. 

Glaeser might have framed his column somewhat differently: instead of focusing on tax cuts, conservatives need to focus on collective bargaining reform to improve the effectiveness, cost, and quality of public services. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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