Weak Defenses of Teacher Bailout

As the Obama administration continues to send mixed signals about the proposed $23 billion public-school bailout, rescue advocates are offering some very wimpy defenses of their cause. That is, except for the National Education Association, which has launched a PR blitz for the bailout in its grandest – and most shameless – tradition of using cute kids to get lots of dues-paying members:

OK, enough of the NEA. The more numerous defenses of the bailout try to offer more reasoned and less emotional arguments for the bailout than does the NEA. But not much more reasoned.

Case in point, the The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who takes issue with an op-ed I had in the New York Post yesterday making clear that even cutting 300,000 public-school employees – the worst-case scenario – would hardly be the “catastrophe” people like U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan say it would be. As I wrote, even that cut would only constitute a 4.8 percent reduction in the public K-12 workforce. More important, we have seen decades of huge per-pupil spending and staffing increases in education with essentially no accompanying improvement in academic achievement. In other words, even far bigger cuts than the worst-case scenario would likely have little adverse effect on achievement.

So the worst cuts wouldn’t actually be that big, and they’d likely have little negative effect on achievement. But to Thompson, they’d be akin to the suffering of cold-turkey drug rehab:

At the risk of invoking a cliche, our education system is a bit like a painkiller junkie who just had his wisdom teeth pulled. In the long term, we probably want to wean the patient off drugs. In the short term, the patient happens to be in dire need of some drugs.

Perhaps more troubling than this overwrought analogy is that Thompson dismisses my complaint that the $23 billion bailout would, in addition to being educationally worthless, add to our staggering national debt.  $23 billion, Thompson essentially says, is just too small a piece of federal change to complain about its debt implications.

“Well,” he writes, “if we’re playing the put-it-in-context game, $23 billion is ‘only’ 0.6% of the 2010 budget. An unfortunate bailout, perhaps, but hardly catastrophic…”

OK. If the game we’re supposed to be playing is the “this-expenditure-isn’t-all-that-big” game, then we can forget about ever cutting the $13 trillion debt. Heck, the Defense Department’s budget in FY 2010 was “only” about $693 billion, a mere 5.3 percent of the national debt.

Joining the bailout defense today is White House Council of Economic Advisors chair Christina Romer, who pushes for it in the Washington Post.

In addition to repeating the usual, now thoroughly debunked proclamations of impending educational disaster, Romer rolls out boilerplate about the government needing to maintain high employment in order to keep people spending and paying taxes:

Because unemployed teachers have to cut back on spending, local businesses and overall economic activity suffer. And the costs of decreased learning time and support for students will be felt not just in the next year or two but will reduce our productivity for decades to come…

Furthermore, by preventing layoffs, we would save on unemployment insurance payments, food stamps and COBRA subsidies for health insurance, and we would maintain tax revenue.

Given the at-best highly dubious short-term positive effects of the “stimulus,” it is hard to believe that too many people at this point will find these arguments persuasive. Worse yet, Romer glosses right over the fact that the mammoth debt will eventually have to be repaid, and that that will have huge negative effects for local businesses and everyone else as their money goes from useful pursuits to government debt repayment.

In light of how flaccid the arguments are for the bailout, it’s really no surprise that the Obama administration is sending mixed signals about how much it really wants the rescue. By offering some support – including having the Education Secretary appear at the launch of the NEA’s PR blitz – the administration keeps on the good side of the teachers unions. But by not going all out, the administration doesn’t end up too closely connected to a debt-be-damned expenditure that neither addresses a real emergency, nor has any meaningful connection to education quality.