Get ready for the largest transfer of funds from the federal government to local schools in history.
Democrats in Congress are proposing a new infusion of federal cash for public schools through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In the House version of the stimulus package released on January 15, Democrats suggest allocating $120 billion for K-12 education, almost $22 billion for higher education, and close to $5 billion for early education. It includes a $79 billion block grant for states to help stabilize state and local education budgets, $26 billion in new money for existing Title I and special education programs, $1 billion for technology to provide "21st Century Schools," and a new $20 billion school construction program. All this money will be in addition to the approximately $60 billion a year in taxpayer money that the federal government already spends on education in the United States.
The stimulus package will spend more than double the current total federal education budget, bringing federal funding of education to well over $200 billion. Unfortunately, this huge expansion is unlikely to spur improvements in public education and will continue to encourage states and local districts to spend money with little regard to student outcomes.
In the last 30 years, the United States has doubled per-pupil spending in real dollars. We spend more money on education for K-12 than most other industrialized countries. According to the OECD's 2008 Education at a Glance, the United States ranks number one in all education spending and well above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average for K-12 education. Yet, outcomes for students at the end of their public education career have not kept pace with these large-scale investments. The average reading and math scores for 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the nation's benchmark for student achievement, are no better today than they were in 1971; SAT verbal scores show a decline (from 530 in 1972 to 504 today); and SAT math scores have been essentially flat (from 509 in 1972 to 515 today). U.S. graduation rates were 78 percent in 1972 and are 74 percent today; and U.S. 15-year-olds score below the international average on science and math literacy when compared with 30 OECD countries—American kids rank behind students from Poland, Hungary, and France to name a few.
The biggest chunk of this new education stimulus will be a block grant to cover operational costs for local school districts. The federal government will direct large amounts of aid to states struggling with huge budget deficits aggravated by the economic downturn. For example, New York Gov. David Paterson is counting on $6.4 billion in help for teacher salaries and other operating expenses over the next two years if the education block grant is part of the final economic stimulus package.
As a House Democratic leadership aide told Politico,"When the recession ends, you are still going to need teachers, firemen, policemen, and the question is do we step in now or pay more to rebuild later."
Public schools suffer from some of the same problems as the auto industry. In Detroit, the financial meltdown is partially caused by union contracts that make promises to employees that are impossible to fulfill and also remain economically viable. In schools, automatic pay raises and teacher tenure mean that school districts have very limited flexibility in hiring and firing and prohibit them from negotiating pay-cuts that reflect the country's current economic conditions.
School districts have also continued to hire more teachers as enrollments have declined. The National Center for Education Statistics puts the current average teacher-student ratio at 1 to 15. There is little evidence that class-size is correlated with student outcomes, yet districts continue to favor small class size as school reform.
This stimulus plan would also prolong the practice of generous defined-benefit retirement plans, which guarantee teachers specific retirement payments despite school districts ever-increasing unfunded pension liabilities.
The stimulus package put forth by House Democrats proposes to spend $20 billion on school construction. But there is no indication new school construction cash will do anything to make the process more efficient or cost-effective. School construction projects are notoriously behind schedule, over budget, and more expensive than other types of construction projects.
Dr. Jay Greene, an education researcher at the University of Arkansas, has noted that building schools costs much more than other types of construction. According to the 34th Annual Official Education Construction Report, the median new school built in 2007 cost $188 per square foot for elementary schools; $211 per square foot for middle schools; and $175 per square foot for high schools. By comparison, the median cost per square foot to build a three-story factory in 2007 ranged from $83 in Winston-Salem to $136 in New York City, with most major metro areas hovering around $100 per square foot.
These stimulus plans contain no incentives for schools to cut costs or reform the school construction bureaucracy by using innovative practices such as public-private partnerships to more efficiently build new schools.
President Barack Obama announced in a recent radio address that his administration would seek to expand broadband access in schools. The House stimulus package contains $1 billion for technology programs and $6 billion to bring broadband access to underserved communities that may include schools. Before moving into the White House, Mr. Obama said, "Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they'll get that chance when I'm president—because that's how we'll strengthen America's competitiveness in the world."