Threatening to fire teachers has become the national pastime of America's politicians. Well, that and heroically saving those same teachers' jobs with emergency appropriations.
Just over a year ago, the stimulus bill flew though Washington and then started trickling money out to the states. One of the more popular justifications for the bill was that states with pinched budgets would have to fire teachers if nothing was done. The stimulus bill included about $100 billion in education funds, most of which went directly to pay for the salary, benefits, and pensions of school personnel.
But now, in a development that exactly everyone could have foreseen, that money is running out. And since the massive infusion of cash saved states from having to make tough decisions about the budget, we are exactly where we were at the beginning of 2009. The cry goes 'round the room: Teacher firings are upon us!
So Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) wants to do it all over again, with a plan to spend $23 billion to preserve teaching positions.
But threats of teacher firings are a red herring, and have been for a long time. The reason states budget are in crisis isn't because modest and responsible efforts by state legislators to retain basic services are failing in a time of crisis. It's because—as Reason noted in a cover story last May—states are still paying the bills on their spending binge during flusher times:
In the five years between 2002 and 2007, combined state general-fund revenue increased twice as fast as the rate of inflation, producing an excess $600 billion. If legislatures had chosen to be responsible, they could have maintained all current state services, increased spending to compensate for inflation and population growth, and still enacted a $500 billion tax cut.
Instead, lawmakers spent the windfall. From 2002 to 2007, overall spending rose 50 percent faster than inflation. Education spending increased almost 70 percent faster than inflation, even though the relative school-age population was falling. Medicaid and salaries for state workers rose almost twice as fast as inflation.
Teachers aren't like whales. They don't stay saved. You have to keep saving them over and over again. And when Harkin's billions run out, we'll be right back where we started.