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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
Conservatives should be leery
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
Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at AEI.
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