Jobs Bill Only Makes Political Sense

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I can’t look into President Obama’s heart, so I can’t tell you what motives are driving the American Jobs Act. I can, though, tell you this: One look at the facts about American education, and his proposal only makes sense if the goals are to energize union support, and perhaps use spending as some easy shorthand to tell voters that the President cares about kids.

The basic reality is that over the last several decades governments at all levels have conducted ever-bigger education money bombings with no positive academic impact. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, real per-pupil expenditures rose from $5,671 in 1970-71 to $12,922 in 2007-08 (the latest year with available data). On the federal level, between 1970 and 2010 per-pupil spending rose an astonishing 375 percent. Meanwhile, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for 17-year-olds – essentially, our schools’ “final products” – were almost completely flat. More money did not buy better results.

What did it buy? Exactly what President Obama seems to want to protect: staffing bloat. Between 1969 and 2008 American schools went from having 22.6 students per teacher to 15.3. District administrative staff went from 697.7 students per employee to just 363.3. In total, students per employee dropped from 13.6 to 7.8, all while academic outcomes froze. We got lots of jobs – many unionized – but nothing of educational value.

There is simply no way to look at the data and believe that $30 billion for school staffing will improve education. So it must only be about jobs, and ineffectual jobs at that.

That “ineffectual” part is the economic key. Stimulus supporters argue that paying for any job is good because employed people spend their dollars. But they ignore that the money must come from somewhere, and that somewhere is ultimately taxpayers who would either spend it themselves – including investing in new or existing companies – or put it in banks that would lend it. So the money would be spent one way or another, only taxpayers have huge incentives to employ it much more efficiently than do public schools, if for no other reason than they did the hard work of earning it. In the aggregate, that means we’d be better off just letting taxpayers keep their ducats.

What we’ve tried already supports this. Contrary to what Dan Domenech writes, public schools have gotten oodles of bailout money. The original stimulus included roughly $100 billion for education, the bulk of which went to public K-12 schooling, and in 2010 the President signed legislation giving states another $10 billion to keep school employment rolls engorged. And did unemployment plateau at about 8 percent, as the Obama team projected? You know the answer.

How about fixing dilapidated school buildings? Again, money is not the answer, unless the question is how do you win union friends and influence voters.

As I testified in 2008, for years school districts had been spending more on maintenance and construction than it was estimated they needed to bring all schools into “good overall condition.” Yet conditions seemed to keep getting worse.

What’s the problem? First, districts often put off maintenance so that small problems become bigger. And second, they often spend lavishly on School Mahals, a tendency embodied by L.A. Unified’s $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex.

Of course, building something brand new, equipped with more superfluous lights and whistles than the original starship Enterprise, doesn’t make practical sense if you could keep the old buildings fully functional at a fraction of the cost. But practical and political are totally different animals. Keeping the boiler in good repair simply doesn’t make for politician-aggrandizing, ribbon-cutting photo-ops. But undertaking a big addition or renovation, which Obama’s bill would pay for, absolutely does.

And let’s not forget: All the labor would likely have to be hired at union rates, in keeping with standard federal requirements. So jobs yes, but not more jobs in exchange for market wages.

Ultimately, the President’s bill would do nothing for education and would hurt the economy, because government spending more almost by definition means a nation wasting money.

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

See here for more on the Department of Education.