No Cut-astrophe

The Obama administration is shaping up to be little more than the Office of Doomsayer in Chief, at least in the early going, and it is being obediently assisted by the media. In education, USA Today gave the office a nice boost this morning by reporting on a Center for Reinventing Public Education projection that without a stimulus, states might have to cut their education spending by 18.5 percent over the next three years. And CRPE did not include a projection for local cuts, which researcher Marguerite Roza said were impossible to make.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seized the moment, stating in the article that the analysis “obviously confirms what we have feared: that there is so much at stake now and we’re really trying to stave off catastrophe.”

Here we go again…

For one thing, predicting budget shortfalls is hardly an exact science. Moreover, unreported by USA Today, the CRPE analysis is based on the assumption that states will cut spending in all areas equally in response to revenue shortfalls. But in few states does anyone wield the kind of political power that the education establishment brings to bear.

Suppose, though, that total per-pupil expenditures – consisting of local, state, and federal dough – were to decrease by 18.5 percent. (Obviously, the feds aren’t going to cut funding, but let’s pretend that some sense somehow wafted into Washington and caught the pols by surprise.) Where would that put us? On par with Depression era funding? Modern day Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe?

Try again.

Unfortunately, the latest per-pupil funding data the federal government has is from the 2004-05 school year, which is likely lower than what was spent this year. But let’s use it anyway, if for no other reason than to give the Chicken Littles every benefit of the doubt. In 2004-05, the average per-pupil expenditure in the United States was $11,470. Reduce that by 18.5 percent, and you’re spending $9,348.

At what year does that put us? Adjusted for inflation, right about at 1996-97 – hardly major time travel! And compared to other industrialized nations? Still in the top six, nearly tied with Denmark, and that is comparing our average for elementary and secondary schooling with just secondary schooling –- the more expensive level – for everyone else.

Considering all of this along with the evidence that I have laid out previously showing the almost complete disconnect between spending and performance, as well as the massive bloat in the system, and such a cut shouldn’t be called a “catastrophe.” It should be called “why the hell didn’t we make such a cut years ago?”