Teacher firings are such a good story. Even seasoned reporters can't resist the lure of quotes from panicked public officials lamenting their absolute necessity of sacking their states' beloved kindergarten teachers. For instance, yesterday's New York Times story (which ran in today's print edition) on the coming teacherpocalypse offered this catastrophic-sounding line:
The 2010-11 school term is shaping up as one of the most austere in the last half century. In addition to teacher layoffs, districts are planning to close schools, cut programs, enlarge classes and shorten the school day, week or year to save money.
A quick read might leave the impression that state education budgets have been reduced to levels rarely seen in the post-war era. Are things really that bad, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?
Duncan estimated that state budget cuts imperiled 100,000 to 300,000 public school jobs. In an interview on Monday, he said the nation was flirting with "education catastrophe," and urged Congress to approve additional stimulus funds to save school jobs.
"We absolutely see this as an emergency," Mr. Duncan said.
It is a budget emergency now, but not strictly because of schools have been "hit hard by the recession" as the Times suggests. It's mostly because states spent an ungodly amount of money during the '00s. It's money they don't have anymore, and you can't blame them for missing it. But catastrophe is relative here.
In the five years between 2002 and 2007, states spent just over $300 billion more than necessary to maintain operations at 2002 levels, accounting for inflation and population growth. Keeping the (not exactly slimline) engines of state governments running would have increased the 2002 spending figure—then just over $1 trillion—by 19 percent. But states actually spend half again as much, with 2007 showing a spending increase of 28 percent over 2002. With that money, the states bought more of everything—more programs, more offices, and yes, more jobs.
Increases in state spending on education were extravagant, even by the standards of those already extravagant years. Education spending increased 32 percent, with states spending $126 billion more in 2007 than they did in 2002.
The stimulus dumped $144 billion into state and local budget gaps, and now that cash is gone. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is proposing with a plan to spend $23 billion to preserve teaching positions. But the feds can dump money all they want into state budget gaps—the gaps won't go away anytime soon unless cuts are made. Cutting education spending back to provide, say, 2002 levels of service is hardly a return to an era of privation and hardship. And there's room for an awful lot of cutting before we get anywhere close to the word austere:
aus·tere - morally strict : ascetic, markedly simple or unadorned
As the Times story notes:
Everywhere, school officials tend to overestimate the potential for layoffs at this time of year, to ensure that every employee they might have to dismiss receives the required notifications.
True, but they also overestimate figures for layoffs because bigger numbers make a better, scarier story.
(All facts and figures are courtesy of Adam B. Summers, my colleague at the Reason Foundation, who makes many of these points in Reason's May 2009 cover story, "Failed States.")