Tom Harkin’s $23 Billion Education Boondoggle

Published April 30, 2010

The federal government plans to spend nearly $44 billion on elementary and secondary education next year. But Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) says that isn’t nearly enough. Harkin recently announced he’ll sponsor a $23 billion “jobs” bill aimed at education. A Washington Post headline described Harkin’s proposal as a “bailout,” yet another irresponsible outlay in an era of “too big to fail,” generational theft, and crushing debt.

SB 3206, the Keep Our Educators Working Act, is the spawn of last year’s $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Although the federal government’s Race to the Top initiative has garnered most of the publicity, the $4.3 billion grant program is pocket change in the context of $100 billion in stimulus aid that states received to cover pay, benefits, and pensions for school personnel.

What was ostensibly “one-time” money is suddenly a new baseline for continuing education spending. Now that the stimulus money is running out and thousands of teachers face layoffs, states are clamoring to the federal government for another infusion of cash. Harkin is more than happy to oblige.

“If there’s one legitimate area where we can borrow from the future, it’s education,” Harkin says. “Because what sort of jobs will we have for my grandkids and great grandkids in the future if we don’t have a well-educated group of young people today?”

Harkin cannot seriously believe he is doing his grandkids a favor by leaving them deeper in debt to keep teachers union dues rolling in and pensions unsustainably high. All Harkin’s bill would do is subsidize additional reckless spending so school districts can put off difficult but necessary decisions for yet another year.

Harkin is peddling more of the same demagogic mythology that claims American public education is woefully underfunded. If greater education spending really bought better results, the United States would have the best-educated citizenry in the world. Local, state, and federal education spending in 2009 topped $667 billion, up from $553 billion just three years earlier. Overall U.S. education spending increased nearly 40 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 1998 and 2008. Total spending on kindergarten through 12th grade alone rose by 32 percent, thanks to No Child Left Behind and an explosion of state expenditures, fueled by capital gains tax revenues from the housing bubble.

While spending accelerated, National Center for Education Statistics figures show total K-12 enrollment grew less than 1 percent a year over the same period. In some states, such as New York, enrollment actually declined during the decade-long hiring boom. And student proficiency in reading, math, and civics has been stagnant since 1998, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Yet Harkin—abetted by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other high priests of the education establishment—insists reasonable cuts are out of the question, layoffs would be disastrous for students, and more spending is the only possible solution. Testifying before Harkin’s committee, Duncan said without the $23 billion infusion, 100,000 to 300,000 public school jobs could be lost and students could lose their “favorite teachers.”

Ignore the fear-mongering. If the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and their state and local affiliates would agree to compromises on wages and pensions, layoffs likely wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, the teacher unions insist on contracts that would be rejected out of hand by any private-sector firm, oppose merit pay and tenure reforms that would foster competition and reward excellence, and maintain an iron grip on budgeting by contributing millions of dollars to toadying politicians.

What the cuts really threaten is a slowdown in the unions’ campaign contributions to Harkin’s political party.

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget noted, “We cannot continue to borrow against our children’s future, or allow special interests to determine how public dollars are spent.” Apparently those were just words. In reality, Harkin and the Obama administration want to borrow from the future to fatten public employee union salaries and benefits while the rest of us struggle in an economy strangled by high taxes and intrusive government. Enough.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.