To the Victor go the Toils

I’ve already explained what last night’s election results will mean for federal education policy. But what about education writ large? It’s pretty simple: a new era of budget austerity is upon us, and it won’t be popular at all. Republicans: congratulations?

States and school districts are flat-out broke. Just about all of the typical budget tricks (cashing in rainy-day funds, refinancing debt, looking for one-time windfalls) have already been used. And a GOP-controlled House is very unlikely to come to the rescue with another bailout. (Andrew Kelly, writing at Rick Hess Straight Up, is right that education spending went up under a Republican Congress in the 1990s, but those increases were in the magnitude of a billion or two of new dollars a year, nothing like the $100 billion we saw in last year’s stimulus bill or even the $10 billion in this year’s edujobs payout. )

And, with as many as two-thirds of governor’s offices and 30 legislatures likely to be in Republican hands, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see state policymakers raise taxes in order to cushion the blow, either.

So get ready for big cuts–and a New Normal–as our education system de-leverages. But don’t expect the public to cheer. Consider the outcome in Florida, where a proposal to loosen the state’s strict class size requirements failed to reach the required 60 percent minimum. Yet it’s virtually impossible–in the Sunshine State or elsewhere–to significantly reduce education spending without allowing class sizes to rise.

This is a classic case of voters wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They want to rein in spending and limit the size of government, but still want intimate classes. They want to get control of the federal budget but don’t want to touch Medicare or Social Security.

It’s going to take strong leadership–from newly-elected governors especially–to prepare Americans for the discomfort of austerity. Here’s hoping our new crop of politicians is up to the job.

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