Schools Are a Convenient Political Photo-Op but a Dubious Job Bank

Published September 16, 2011

It is difficult to imagine President Barack Obama is so out of touch that he expects anything more than campaign photo-ops to result from his proposal to pour $30 billion into local school construction as part of his vaunted American Jobs Bill.

TV cameras will roll and reporters will scribble furiously on their pads as Obama stands in front of dilapidated schoolhouses and blames the Republicans for refusing to go along with federal modernizing of thousands of public schools. Only greed in the form of a GOP desire to shelter affluent people from higher taxes stands in the way of a happily employed populace with shiny new government schools to patronize, the Divider-in-Chief will argue right up to November 6, 2012.

Unfortunately for any practitioner of class warfare, there are serious problems with this scenario. To begin, Obama sought a school-construction piece in his original $821 billion economic stimulus back in 2009, but it had to be stripped out because of objections not just from Republicans but also from moderate Democrats.

Remember, that was when the Democrats enjoyed huge majorities in both chambers of Congress. They could–and did–lard up the stimulus bill with all sorts of non-shovel-ready pork, but school construction was too much even for many in Obama’s party to swallow.

They had good reasons to object. Nothing is more fundamental to local control of education than decisions about where and how to build schools. Over the past decade and a half, states and localities have spent close to $300 billion on school construction. The large-scale entry of the federal government could dry up private investment and add to the already onerous burden of federal regulation.

Unmentioned by the president is a costly string that would come with federal construction aid. The Depression-era Davis-Bacon Act would mandate that all the labor for school construction be hired at union rates, thereby driving up costs for taxpayers and penalizing nonunionized workers. It would be yet another payoff for Obama’s Big Labor allies at the expense of locally controlled education.

What about the other half of education’s slice of the $447 billion “jobs” bill–$30 billion to avert teacher layoffs over the next two years? That, too, makes an appealing photo-op. Who rejoices in further layoffs in an economy with 14 million workers already unemployed? However, again the proposal would harm, not help local schools.

In 2010, a few months before the Tea Party landslide that cost them their majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats led by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi used funding gimmicks and creative borrowing to produce a $10 billion Stimulus II for education, the so-called “edujobs” measure. It narrowly passed as an add-on to the $100 billion to prop up the education status quo in the original super-stimulus package.

The extra money basically sank without a trace. By the time it became available, many districts already had hired back pink-slipped teachers on their own. The boondoggle was basically a distraction for school superintendents and school boards trying to come to terms with the need to streamline their operations to meet new realities. Some used the windfall to boost teacher salaries, not job creation.

Why should still more money be extracted from taxpayers and given to public-sector employment anyway? Are welders, mechanics, and truck drivers who are unable to find work less deserving of our sympathy than public-school employees? A 2010 study by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government found that during 30 months of recession, the number of private-sector jobs had declined by 7 percent while employment in state and local government had remained stable.

Spending and staffing trends over the past four decades indicate a little belt-tightening in public education would be entirely reasonable. In 1969, public schools employed 13.6 teachers and administrative staff per pupil. By 2008, that had fallen to 7.8 employees per pupil. This staff bloat occurred as reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress remained flat. There is no reason to believe Obama stimulus handouts for layoff prevention will have any more positive results.

Obama will receive credit from his union allies for trying to turn on the spending spigots again, but the nation’s schools and economy will be better off without yet another round of wasteful federal spending.

Robert Holland ([email protected] ) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute in Chicago.