Obama and Education: Pork You Can Believe In

It's been a tough year for President Obama's legislative agenda. His centerpiece proposals have likely died while generating intense ideological rancor. Almost predictably, he now falls back on the apple pie and motherhood issue of education to elicit a legislative consensus and maybe, if lucky, enact something tangible. It's admittedly a tough sell in today's debt-ridden, frozen-budget times, but who can oppose a world-class education for American kids?   

According to the president's proposed 2011 budget, the Department of Education will receive up to $4 billion more for K-12 education. This is on top of the president's $4-billion economic stimulus-driven Race to the Top program and the $100 billion for schools allocated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. His State of the Union address offered irresistible rhetoric:

[Instead] of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner cities.

Murky implementation details aside, Secretary Duncan assured everyone that key congressional Democrats and Republicans plus mayors and governors from both parties were on board.   

This motherhood and apple pie route may appear inviting after the bruising partisanship of health care reform, but serious caution is advised. This budget-bloating money will not fix our educational woes; it will instead reward a dysfunctional educational establishment. This is yet one more dubious make-work jobs bill -- or to use a little barnyard humor, a pig-in-a poke-wrapped in a sheepskin.    

America is addicted to education largess. Between 1900 and 2008, our total government spending on education rose from 1% of the GDP to 7% in 2008. In 1919-20, the cost per pupil in constant (2005-06) dollars was $668; by the beginning of WWII, it had risen to $1,404. Upward movement continued, so in 1949-50, it was $2,188, and by 1959-60, it was $3,190 per pupil. By the end of the 20th century, it hit $10,000, and by 2003-05, it was $11,000 [1]. Education munificence has even outstripped health care appetites. We are also spending more on buildings and facilities.             

The enterprise is also incredibly labor-intensive, far exceeding practices in private businesses [2]. While corporations automate to cut costs and improve quality, schools relentlessly expand payrolls without improving quality. In fact, by the mid-1990s, salaries for the venerable classroom teacher, once the major budgetary item, consumed less than half of all school salaries. This was true even though shrinking class size requires hiring more teachers per school. Schools with "at-risk" students can rival luxury resorts where attendants outnumber guests. In 1949-50, the ratio of pupil to school staff member was 19.3 to 1; by 2004, it had fallen to 8 to 1. In the '60s, there were barely any "instructional aides" (1.3% of all staff); by 2004, nearly one of eight staff members was an "instructional aide." 

New York City's education bureaucracy illustrates the jobs creation machine at work, where positions are typically available to those with modest training or an easy-to-get high school equivalence certificate. Job titles include "Teaching Assistant," four distinct levels of "Educational Assistant," three levels of "Education Associate," and two types of "Auxiliary Trainer," plus varied "Family Assistants." Salaries (as of 2008) for all these helping jobs range from just over $20,000 per year to $31,000, but with ample benefits (a choice of three health plans, disability insurance, and a pension, plus multiple other benefits), a decent job for many. Schools have also become job-creating restaurants. In 2007, New York City schools served some 640,000 lunches and 191,000 breakfasts during the school year, most of which were subsidized. The city's school police force is now the nation's fifth-largest of any police force.

Fixing underachievement via payroll expansion is so hardwired into our policymaking that it scarcely attracts attention -- perhaps no accident, given the electoral clout of the National Education Association and other Democratic-inclined school-based unions. Recently, the prestigious College Board in a Capitol Hill press conference addressed the issue of low academic achievement among black males. The cited culprits were lack of role models, seeking respect outside of school, a loss of cultural memory, poverty and language barriers, community pressures, and a sense of a failing educational system. This "unflinching examination" (their words) skipped over work habits or non-academic priorities.

And what were the proposed solutions? Discipline slackers? Hire retired Marine drill sergeants to kick butt? Hardly, since these tough-love solutions do not require bigger budgets with dues-paying union members. Instead, these "probing and unflinching" experts demanded community partnerships, more role models and mentors, and "wraparound" services. Never heard of "wraparound services"? Fortunately, the report offered suggestions: multiple comprehensive community-building services for families and children, parenting classes, job training, health clinics, and charter schools. If this is insufficient, hire black role model teachers. None of this has ever worked, or at least not significantly, and any of it had succeeded, the original Great Society would have done the trick decades ago.

This is not an extreme example. Other "save the students" programs are even more extravagant, labor-intensive, and ill-conceived. The script is always the same: The president demands excellence, offers to spend billions to achieve it, and even skinflint Republicans enlist; students perform terribly; and educational experts recommend hiring more bodies. Employees are recruited, failures persist, and after a few years, we begin again with different gimmicks. The private-sector solution of doing more with less or just stopping the waste is heresy. Build the failure, and the job-seekers will come.

The merit of a job-creation bill is irrelevant. People need work, and if a school district can afford to hire thousands of "Educational Assistants II" to supervise recess and lunch, why complain? The issues are truth in advertising and sustaining a horrific incentive structure. General Motors was once described as a health insurance provider that occasionally manufactured cars. American education has become a huge pork-laden enterprise, where few are ever fired, that occasionally imparts learning.

If this is judged too cynical, how might one explain why every Washington-financed measure has come up short? The scientific research is unequivocal -- nothing on the Obama menu will fix schools. If Obama's doomed solution is change we can believe in, then what is change we can't believe in? The same old stuff is being repackaged and spiffed up, and everybody with half a brain undoubtedly knows it. Unfortunately, those who can see that the Emperor is naked will not hold a committee hearing and subpoena the Chief Tailor to testify. Perchance Congress is war-weary from health care and will acquiesce so as to avoid the obstructionist label.  And what's a few billion when conversations are now about trillions?   

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.

[1] Eric Hanushek and others1994. Making Schools Work: Improving Performances and Controlling Cost. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, Chapter 3.

[2] Lieberman 1993, Lieberman, Myron 1993. Public Education An Autopsy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 257-8.
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