Don't Pass on Education

Resident Scholar
Frederick M. Hess

The House stimulus bill, with its proposal for a hefty $150 billion in education spending, seeks to make schools and colleges the biggest beneficiaries of the proposed federal largesse. This poses a daunting challenge for conservatives. The House bill calls for $80 billion in general K-12 aid to states and another $70 billion in assorted education spending. It says nothing about whether this money would be spent wisely or would simply prop up current budgets, which are padded by years of increasing revenues from inflated property-tax rolls--thereby minimizing the need to scrub school spending for waste or inefficiency.

The Senate's version, negotiated by a bipartisan collection of centrists who built on questions raised by House Republicans, strips out about half the education appropriations (though even the Senate bill would nearly double annual federal education spending). Conservatives see little choice but to either endorse the Senate's slimmed-down giveaway or else simply say "no." As they weigh these tactical options, it is vital to recognize the opportunity to pursue a third course.

Conservatives should be leery of anything billed as a big fix--recognizing that good intentions aren't enough, skepticism is wise, and poorly conceived solutions can make things worse.

Despite the buyer's remorse that suffused conservative opinion on George W. Bush's education agenda, the real problem was not his administration's willingness to compromise with the Left on No Child Left Behind, K-12 reform, or higher education; this was appropriate and inevitable for a governing party. The problem was how it compromised. The administration embraced the expedience of grand gestures and good intentions instead of relying on a more principled position shaped by fiscal restraint, respect for government's limitations, and attention to the importance of incentives.

The Bush White House made a series of profound compromises on education, motivated by noble intentions, expansive faith in the power of government to fix societal ills, and a hunger for easy political point-scoring. In embracing unrealistic, aspirational language--calling for 100 percent of the nation's students to be proficient by 2014, or mandating that states ensure every teacher is "highly qualified," for instance--the administration won widespread plaudits but set the table for liberals to champion even greater federal efforts to "fix" the problems when these policies inevitably disappointed.

The administration's stance was understandable. It is politically attractive to be passionate, to champion eye-popping targets, to grandly announce one's love for kids, and to propose extravagant solutions--while belittling skeptics as small-minded or mean-spirited. Conservatives, however, should be leery of anything billed as a big fix--recognizing that good intentions aren't enough, skepticism is wise, and poorly conceived solutions can make things worse.

This was the tradition of prudence that the Bush administration abandoned on education. One confusing result was that conservatives had to choose between embracing Bush's Great Society stylings and utterly rejecting a federal role in education. Neither is a promising course today. Given the Bush legacy on this issue and the real challenges of reform, it is inevitable and appropriate that the feds will play a more active role in schooling. (This is quite a comedown from the height of the Republican Revolution in 1995, when Newt Gingrich and his allies tried to eliminate the Department of Education, only to be soundly rebuffed.) Lost has been the simple insight that helped nurture modern conservatism and crucially aided the New Democrats in the 1990s: Government action can be constructive--when it's crafted with a respect for limits, and with disciplined attention to incentives, resources, and program design.

That's a big if, of course. Still, in recent decades, conservatives have developed creative approaches to welfare reform, health policy, and urban development that countenanced a meaningful federal role instead of relying entirely on local control. Such proposals marry attention to incentives and responsibility with an appreciation of how Uncle Sam's constitutionally limited powers could be used to promote smart, cost-effective, market-friendly reform. It is long past time to accept such thinking in education, where public spending on K-12 and higher education totals more than $800 billion a year.

Which brings us back to the stimulus. When it comes to education, conservatives can identify the conditions under which they might view the proposed aid more warmly by focusing on incentives, cost-effectiveness, and fiscal restraint. States and localities would have to demonstrate that they were reallocating dollars from less effective programs and services to more effective ones. School systems would identify and remove poor teachers and redirect resources to the best teachers and to those with scarce skills. Federal aid would be conditioned on its recipients' pursuing a course back to financial sustainability by unwinding unaffordable promises of benefits and pensions, as has been the case with Detroit's automakers.

Without these conditions--in fact, given the stimulus's blatant disregard for such measures--even those willing to countenance a constructive federal role are right to regard the proposed aid as ill-conceived and wasteful.

In view of the splits on the left, there are substantial opportunities for creative conservatives to help shape the debate and wield influence. While conservatives will do nothing more than make a political statement if they simply say "no," they have the votes to ensure that the legislation is smarter, more fiscally responsible, and more attentive to incentives and unintended consequences than it would be if they sit this one out.

Laying down markers on the stimulus package and slicing out dollars that would amplify status quo spending has been a vital first step. Doing so in a way that strengthens reform and removes $100 billion or more in giveaways from the Treasury's ballooning tab will help conservatives find their footing on sensible, defensible terrain. There are big debates ahead, and conservatives must choose a path that avoids both the irrelevance of "no" and the tempting snare of the Bush era's grand gestures.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at AEI.

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