After the Debt Deal: It Gets Tougher From Here

Last week, while I was on blog hiatus, the President and Congress topped off months of increasing rancor by cobbling together a last minute debt deal. There are several key edu-world takeaways that can too easily get lost amidst the languid summer heat. So, let’s take a moment to flag them.

After all, edu-advocates don’t seem to have a clue as to what’s ahead. As the debt deal was getting resolved, the Committee for Education Funding–a decades-old alliance of 80-odd trough-snuffling universities, education associations, and assorted hangers-on–issued a hand-wringing letter that said, “We fear that education programs will face multiple rounds of cuts under the initial reduction in appropriated funds proposed in the [debt reduction] bill and from the joint committee’s plan or from sequestration.” No fear about it, gang, that’s exactly what’s ahead. Moreover, newsflash: Pre-K, K-12, and higher ed are in for years of tough sledding when it comes to federal funding. That was inevitable however the debt deal came out.

First, those in pre-K, K-12, and higher ed need to understand that it’s going to be mostly cuts and belt-tightening for a good long while. For all the debt deal pyrotechnics, the reality is that Uncle Sam is collecting about $2.2 trillion in taxes this year but plans to spend more than $3.6 trillion. Social Security, Medicare, and interest payments alone account for half or more of all annual outlays. You could slash defense spending by a third, adopt Obama’s preferred tax hikes on those making $250,000 and up, and scrupulously abide by the new spending caps, and you’d still be eyeballing a $1 trillion shortfall in 2012. Education, roads, research, and the rest are going to be squeezed out by Social Security and health care, unless we get serious entitlement reform or sizable across-the-board tax hikes (remember, only half of workers currently pay any federal income tax). Of course, taking on the seniors lobby or working families is a lot less fun for comfortable, self-impressed edu-advocates than issuing heartwrenching pleas for more cash.

Second, for all the hand-wringing, the “cuts” adopted in the debt ceiling deal aren’t real cuts. Instead, both the initial trims and those that will come out of the “supercommittee” represent nothing more than an agreement to modestly slow the rate of spending growth. Under the terms of the deal, it’s expected that the federal debt will be an immense $22 trillion in 2021, down only slightly from the $24 trillion projected before the deal. So, for all the anguished cries, all we’ve done is slightly slow the rate at which our spending it outstripping our revenues. Absent those entitlement reforms or new taxes, the real cuts are yet to come. In other words, the really tough part hasn’t even started yet.

Third, even those advocates who concede this reality may protest, “But we’re going to spend billions on school facilities and technology over the next decade; why don’t we at least accelerate the timetable so as to create jobs and get the benefits faster?” The problem is that seasoned observers have learned not to take these protestations at face value. As soon as the dollars in question are spent, it’s a certainty that the usual suspects will be back at the trough. In the face of such demands, Congress has proven itself to be a lot like your teenage son’s irresponsible friend; the one who emptied his college fund to buy a carpeted, pinstriped VW van with mag wheels and neon seat covers, and now hopes his folks will loan him money for insurance. A substantial number of Hill Republicans have decided the only way to deal with that kid is to just say “no.” Rather than issue petulant missives denouncing cuts, the ed community might want to start contemplating a new strategy for the challenges ahead.

– Frederick Hess

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