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Microcosm: Looking at the Obama 2012 Education Budget

The New York Times has a great interactive feature on the Obama 2012 budget, where they tab certain parts of the text and highlight additional reporting they’ve made on the subject. It’s a solid way to thumb through everything. I could probably write for the next year about this budget, but let’s focus on the education piece, because I think it’s an example of what Derek Thompson said about the budget as a whole: “the same way a spork makes a incomplete fork and an ineffectual spoon, this compromise budget provides for both incomplete investment and ineffectual deficit reduction.”

The education budget is actually one of those areas of investment, overall. The Department of Education gets an 11% increase, and most of it goes to sustain Pell grant funding, setting the top award at $5,550 a year. In order to pay for that Pell grant increase, which is significant, the budget cuts summer school grants and accrues interest on student loans for graduate students while they are enrolled. Some education advocates have been convinced that these increases in interest are OK because the money goes back into making college more affordable, and that the summer school grants exploded in cost in their first year and had to be scaled back. Nonetheless, you cannot escape the fact that you’re basically paying for college affordability by taking away other elements of college affordability. You’re probably targeting it better, but it’s a similiar pool of money.

Outside of the Pell Grant program, the education budget increases by 4% over the current budget. This is not an explosion in spending and doesn’t represent an incredible investment. The budget leverages this money by going back to the Race to the Top competitive grant system, and expanding it to include K-12 school districts in addition to states, as well as with colleges, which would compete to show how well they can help high-need students matriculate. There’s also an Early Learning Challenge Fund, which would go to states that show increases in early childhood education.

The last Race to the Top program led to changes in education policy in 40 states, but only 12 states ended up with the winning funds. The Administration clearly likes pitting states against one another and having them compete for scarce funds, leveraging the dollars they have to provoke major changes. But the single biggest change for school districts right now is the lack of money leading to mass firings. The President is putting money toward recruiting 100,000 teachers in science and math, but cash-strapped states are firing teachers left and right.

The school superintendent in this rural town outside the state capital has taken steps to trademark the district’s oddly un-Texan school mascot — the Hutto Hippo — in a frantic effort to raise cash. He is also planning to put advertisements on school buses and to let retailers have space on the school Web site.

But the money expected from the sale of “Hustling Hippos” merchandise would be peanuts compared with the hole expected to open up in the district’s budget, as the Legislature moves to slash about $4.8 billion in state aid to schools over two years to close a budget gap.

So Mr. Killian and the beleaguered school board have agreed to shut down a recently built grade school and to cut a 10th of the staff, among them a principal, 2 assistant principals, 4 librarians and 38 teachers. That round of staff cuts is a just first step, he says, and layoffs will follow if the budget bills proposed in the Legislature are enacted without changes.

All across Texas, school superintendents are bracing for the largest cuts to public education since World War II, and the state is not alone. Schools across the country are in trouble as billions in emergency stimulus grants from the federal government have run out, and state and federal lawmakers have interpreted the victory of fiscal hawks in November’s midterm elections to mean that tax increases are out of the question.

The money thrown around in the Race to the Top grant is paltry compared to what is needed to stave off mass layoffs of teachers and administrative personnel throughout the country. After all, federal dollars are less than 10 percent of education spending. But it’s the emphasis here, on challenges and competitions, and the conceit of “investing” in schools at a time when they’re hemorrhaging jobs, that rankles. The investment is simply not big enough to fit the crisis; and the focus on pitting schools against one another seeks to solve a nonexistent problem.

This is the problem with the entire budget. It’s having a different conversation than people and policymakers are having across the country. It talks about investment when the investment is too low to make a difference. It talks about austerity when the austerity is misplaced (and focused on far too narrow a slice of the budget, magnifying the austerity in those areas). It talks about challenges and competitive grants when the real problems go basically unaddressed. It seeks a middle course on virtually everything and ends up satisfying no one. And by accepting the argument that cuts are necessary even during a jobs crisis, it makes it nearly impossible that the worst cuts can be stopped.

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David Dayen

David Dayen