Getting Right Why the Teacher Bailout Is Wrong

Here’s the good news: The once $23 billion teacher bailout proposal has been shrunk to $10 billion.

Here’s the bad news: There are still people in Congress trying to enact a bailout, and no Democrat seems to know why the new bailout is wrong.

In case you haven’t been following the drama, for months now primarily Democrats in Congress have been pushing various “emergency” funding proposals to deal with everything from the War in Afghanistan to infusing funds into Pell Grants. A big part of the emergency funding has been money to save public education employees – teachers and other staffers – from cuts Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said could range from 100,000 to 300,000 jobs.  The intial teacher bailout was championed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who put it at $23 billion.

Well, it turns out that screaming that the sky is falling because some people in public schooling might lose their jobs just doesn’t scare people much anymore. Despite union-courting Chicken Littles like Duncan and Harkin wailing about a “catastrophe” should the $23 billion not be doled out, Harkin’s effort never caught fire and he dropped it. House Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey (D-Wis.) tried to pick it up, but had to cut his companion proposal back to $10 billion. He has also felt compelled to – heaven forefend! – find some way to pay for the bailout, which wouldn’t have been required had he been able to get away with calling it “emergency” spending.

Obey’s new proposal has taken heat from some fellow Democrats, who have attacked it for all the wrong reasons.

Part of Obey’s plan to pay for the bailout is to take a total of $500 million from President Obama’s vaunted Race to the Top program, and $300 million from other supposedly “reform-y” efforts. It’s left some congressional Democrats apoplectic, including Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who wrote a letter ot Obey stating that:

Race to the Top has already led to major progress that will improve student achievement. The discussions and changes that have taken place across the nation in the past year have accelerated long overdue and necessary reforms.

But now, this progress is now threatened by the proposed $800 million cuts to three critical education reform programs: $500 million from Race to the Top, $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund and $100 million from the Charter Schools Program. While Chairman Obey’s efforts to provide critical funding for cash-strapped public schools across the nation through a $10 billion Education Jobs Fund are commendable, it is very troubling that these three innovative programs were chosen to bear the brunt as offsets. This proposal undermines the President’s effort to reshape and reinvent our nation’s schools, by incentivizing educational innovation, building on what works, and rewarding results…

Here’s where Polis is first wrong: Asserting that Obey’s $10 billion proposal is “commendable.” As I and Andrew Coulson have demonstrated repeatedly, there is zero need for a bailout. For one thing, 300,000 employees – the absolute worst-case unemployment scenario – isn’t all that big a chunk of a public schooling  system that employs over 6 million people. Moreover, we’ve had huge increases in spending and staffing over the last several decades but no real improvements in academic outcomes. If anything, then, we have way too much fat in public schooling and should be looking to make even bigger cuts, giving taxpayers sizable breaks they could use to get the economy really humming again.

Polis is also mistaken to claim that Race to the Top has “led to major progress.” As I have written on several occasions, it has led to lots of reform promises and some ultimately hollow legislative changes, but it definitely has not translated into major progress. And as anyone who has followed public schooling knows full well, there is almost always a huge gulf between what is promised, and what is accomplished. So the best one can say for Race to the Top is that the jury is still out, and even that, frankly, would be being optimistic.

Unfortunately, the other basic objection to Obey’s plan is even worse, and it comes most notably from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. With what seems to be his customary disregard for fiscal discipline, taxpayers, etc., Miller’s complaint is that “We have an emergency on our hands—teachers’ jobs and our children’s future are at stake. This initiative should have been funded through emergency spending.”

Right. When some relatively small number of public school staffers – not just teachers, mind you – might lose jobs that haven’t produced any measurable good, that is an emergency that justifies yet more deficit spending. The $13 trillion national debt, on the other hand? Well, that’s just one of those things you can attend to next time you’ve got nothing else to do, like painting the mailbox, or whittling.

Enough is enough: The teacher bailout needs to go completely away, people have to be realistic about Race to the Top, and sooner or later Washington has got to be crushed down to size.