The economic stimulus plan that Congress has scheduled for a vote on Wednesday would shower the nation’s school districts, child care centers and university campuses with $150 billion in new federal spending, a vast two-year investment that would more than double the Department of Education’s current budget.
The proposed emergency expenditures on nearly every realm of education, including school renovation, special education, Head Start and grants to needy college students, would amount to the largest increase in federal aid since Washington began to spend significantly on education after World War II.
Critics and supporters alike said that by its sheer scope, the measure could profoundly change the federal government’s role in education, which has traditionally been the responsibility of state and local government.
Responding in part to a plea from Democratic governors earlier this month, Congress allocated $79 billion to help states facing large fiscal shortfalls maintain government services, and especially to avoid cuts to education programs, from pre-kindergarten through higher education.
Obama administration officials, teachers unions and associations representing school boards, colleges and other institutions in American education said the aid would bring crucial financial relief to the nation’s 15,000 school districts and to thousands of campuses otherwise threatened with severe cutbacks.
“This is going to avert literally hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.
The formulas by which the stimulus money for public schools would be allocated to states and local districts are complex, but take into consideration numbers of school-age children in poor families. The level received per student would vary considerably by state, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation, a research group that monitors education spending. New York would be among the biggest beneficiaries, at $760 per student, while New Jersey and Connecticut would fall near the bottom, with $427 and $409 per student, respectively. The District of Columbia would get the most per student, $1,289, according to the foundation’s analysis.
Frederick Hess, an education policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, criticized the bill as failing to include mechanisms to encourage districts to bring school budgets in line with property tax revenues, which have plunged with the bursting of the real estate bubble.
“It’s like an alcoholic at the end of the night when the bars close, and the solution is to open the bar for another hour,” Mr. Hess said.
Of course that's a ridiculous analogy; as if it were the children that drove up property values who now need to be reigned in. In fact our present system, which relies mostly upon the value of property in the school district and which necessitates stop-gap measures to reduce the vast inequality in schools that such a program results in (Robin Hood in Texas, for one) is absurd; I for one don't believe in centralization of schools under any sort of federal authority, as I think federalism allows for greater innovation and responsiveness, at least in this field. But I do believe that schools should largely be funded centrally, at the state or national level. If this is a step in that direction, so much the better.