Just Say NO to bailouts for public education

Patrick Gibbons

*Public education should be about educating children and improving results, not about creating jobs for adults.

The end of the world … for public education … is near!

We hear that refrain all the time. In Nevada we’ve heard it for the last three years, yet there have been almost no real cuts to public education funding. K-12 education in Nevada is spending about as much as, if not more than, it was three years ago.

In his doomsday warnings, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan claims that without a $23 billion K-12 education bailout, 100,000-300,000 K-12 workers could lose their jobs.

There is just one problem. According to Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute,

The federal Digest of Education Statistics tells us that in the 2007-08 school year (the latest with available data), US public schools employed more than 6.2 million teachers and other staff. Losing 300,000 of those jobs would only be a 4.8 percent cut – unfortunate, perhaps, but hardly catastrophic.

And 300,000 is the worst-case scenario. The AASA figure of 275,000 would be just a 4.4 percent cut. The low end of Duncan’s prediction, 100,000 positions, would constitute only a 1.6 percent trim. That’s less than one out of every 60 public-school jobs.

As with most doomsday warnings dealing with public education, the reality is considerably less catastrophic than advertised. More importantly, far more than 5 percent of private-sector workers have lost their jobs.

Bailouts are intended to keep poorly functioning entities alive just a little longer, and public education is no exception. Keeping bad schools open and bad teachers teaching is not a good idea – it is a waste of scarce resources. Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice, has a better idea – give the money to the parents.

If this president and Congress really wanted to help children and benefit teachers, it would emancipate students so their parents could use their own tax dollars to obtain educational services wherever they wanted – at charter schools, virtual schools or with a voucher to transfer to the private school of their choice. But that’s not really what they want. Instead, they want to maintain a status quo that is designed to benefit the adults rather than brighten the future of children.

Maintaining the status quo is the express purpose of a school bailout. The problem is, we may not need all these expensive teachers in the first place. In fact, while the number of teachers has grown, student achievement has not. McCluskey states,

Between the 1970-71 school year and 2006-07, inflation-adjusted US public-school spending more than doubled, from $5,593 to $12,463 per pupil. The number of staff per pupil ballooned about 70 percent.

This might have been a fine investment – had it produced anything approaching commensurate improvements in achievement. But it didn’t, according to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called Nation’s Report Card.

The U.S. economy will continue to struggle if we keep taking money out of the productive parts of the economy to fund programs that produce little to no benefit for society. Spending excessively on additional teachers when doing so has not produced results has been a waste of money – a $290 million waste of money in Nevada.