Barack Obama's "Stimulus" Plan Would Grow Union Jobs, Hinder School Reform

The big story in the news is about President-elect Obama’s giant “stimulus” plan – better known as a giant spending spree that hangs even more debt on the shoulders of me and other kids growing up around America.

That part is bad enough. But three leading education reformers – Michael Petrilli, Checker Finn, and Frederick Hess – see other serious problems that it will create for trying to improve our schools and help students learn. In the column they wrote for National Review yesterday, the authors challenge the suggestion that tons of federal government money “invested” in education will yield more positive results down the road:

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.

Naturally, the leaders of any organization would rather sidestep problems than confront them. In good times, budgets expand, payrolls grow, new people come on board, and managers delay difficult decisions. Tough times come to serve as a healthful (if sour) tonic, forcing leaders to identify priorities and giving them political cover to trim the fat.

What’s unique about public education is that, unlike their private-sector counterparts, few school districts ever face this day of reckoning. Superintendents squawk when they are told to hold spending growth to “just” one or two percent the next year.

Per-pupil spending today is roughly double (in inflation-adjusted terms) what it was in 1983, when the U.S. was declared “a nation at risk.” That huge increase in public outlays has funded all manner of questionable practices, including ever-shrinking class sizes (popular with parents and teachers, but mostly unrelated to student achievement), an ever-growing number of teachers and other school employees, a uniform salary schedule that treats incompetents and all-stars identically, an unsustainable pension-and-benefits system, and a tenure system that protects instructional dysfunction. In other words, taxpayers have spent decades funding an enormous, inefficient jobs program.

Sigh. Politicians – including our soon-to-be new President – will do just about anything in the name of the children. But if Obama and his advisers actually took a sober look at the consequences of their proposal, they would have to realize this “stimulus” package will do far more to stimulate union jobs for adults than to improve education for children.

(To see how the statistics bear out showing the lack of connection between increased per-pupil funding and student outcomes, check out the paper A Second Look at K-12 Cash by my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow.)

Maybe saddest of all, in the end it will be my generation that pays most of the price tag for this failed approach. Talk about bumming out my weekend.