Note to Education Reporter: GDP Is HUGE, Just like Education Spending

Last week I testified before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that deals with education. The topic was sequestration, and my case was, frankly, overwhelming, showing that education spending has ballooned for decades while achievement for 17-year-olds – our schools’ “final products” – hasn’t budged.

At least I thought it was overwhelming. But apparently a Huffington Post reporter was underwhelmed by it and wrote the following:

Some lobbyists in the education reform camp note that U.S. education spending has skyrocketed, while test scores have stagnated. Neal McCluskey – an expert witness who serves as associate director for the Cato Institute’s education center – took this line, but a recent report from the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy shows that education spending has actually not grown at all as a share of the gross domestic product.

Aside from the odious implication that I am either a lobbyist or take my cues from them, the big problem with this rebuttal is that it is flat-out wrong. Open the link to the CEP report, go to page 35, and there you will see that the share of GDP taken by elementary and secondary education in fact grew between 1999 and 2009, from 4.4 percent to 4.6 percent.

Perhaps the writer thinks a 0.2 percentage point uptick isn’t big enough to constitute growth. If so, she should really take a look at the Digest of Education Statistics table that furnished the GDP data. It reveals just how big a spending increase that seemingly dinky rise was, a function of GDP starting very large and growing  substantially. Indeed, there was an increase of over $237 billion, or a 57 percent ballooning, with spending rising from $413 billion in 1999 to $650 billion in 2009!

Those are current dollars so we should really adjust for inflation. Doing that moves the 1999 figure to $531 billion, but that still means there was a real increase of $119 billion, or a 22 percent move. That’s no growth by no means.

To her credit, the Huff Po reporter included one piece of context that’s crucial when discussing cuts to federal education spending, context that belies the irresponsible rhetoric of people like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said sequestration would “jeopardize our nation’s ability to develop and support an educated, skilled workforce that can compete in the global economy.”

Surely to justify such doomsaying cuts would have to be very large – perhaps 10 or 20 percent – right?

Nope. As Sen. Shelby (R-AL) rightly noted at the hearing – and the Huff Po reported – the 7.8 percent cut to federal education programs likely under sequestration would only translate into about a 0.84 percent cut in total education spending. Why? Because the Feds – though spending far too much on education – still only supply about 10.8 percent of the total. Most funding comes from state and local governments.

When you look honestly at the numbers there really is no question: Sequestration should fully include education.