The Perpetual Stimulus

Here we go again. As Politics K-12 reports, the Administration is foreshadowing a second stimulus package, this one likely to focus on bailing out local and state governments, including and especially public school systems. Rather than lay out all the reasons why such an infusion of federal cash may actually impede reform, I’ll simply point to this prescient piece by three brilliant education analysts from 11 months ago.

But the case against Round Two is even more compelling. Last year a serious argument could be made that our economy was at risk of entering a deflationary cycle, and laying off a bunch of teachers didn’t make smart economic sense. (Well, not too serious a case. Would a couple of hundred thousand teachers losing their jobs really have been the “tipping point” that would have led to worldwide gloom and doom?) But nobody can make the case today that giving the pink slip to thousands of teachers is going to wreck our economy and usher in the second Great Depression.

I know this sounds heartless. Don’t get me wrong; the pain is real in many states. In our home state of Ohio, budget woes might put a stake through the heart of many charter schools, and cripple many urban public schools. That’s not to be celebrated. And Kevin Carey was right that most states and districts would respond to budget shortfalls in stupid ways, such as implementing across-the-board cuts and/or letting go of their youngest teachers. (Though a few—Washington, DC comes to mind—have bucked this trend.)

But at some point our education system is going to have to reckon with the fact that the fat days are behind us. Yes, the economy will recover, and state revenues will too. But with Baby Boomers retiring en masse, there’s about to be enormous pressure on budgets at all levels of government. At the state and local level, that’s especially because of the unaffordable retirement promises we’ve made to public sector employees, including teachers. I predict that most school districts will never see a return to the double-digit annual budget increases that some became accustomed too, especially during the housing boom.

So what will they do? It’s quite clear; just read this, from Politics K-12:

Already, education organizations are letting congressional leaders and the administration know what they want to see in the potential jobs package. The National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union based in Washington, sent a letter to members of the House of Representatives Dec. 3 asking that members consider including an education jobs fund in the new legislation. Here’s a snippet of the NEA’s argument:

Critical to such a package is the inclusion of an Education Jobs Fund to help save and create jobs that help students achieve, run our schools, and strengthen the middle class, while blunting the consequences of a funding cliff after the expiration of funds provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The education establishment will push for more and more and more from the Federal government. And that government will likely comply, borrowing more money from China (and our kids) so that our education system can avoid making the painful but necessary changes needed to become more efficient and effective. This perpetual stimulus will go on for years, but at some point, I also predict, the money will run out. Eventually there will be a day of reckoning. Smart districts will prepare for it now, rather than later.

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