During remarks to attendees in Charlotte last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan claimed that the budget passed by the House of Representatives would mean “fewer teachers in the classroom, fewer resources for poor kids and students with disabilities, [and] fewer after school programs.”
However, the House budget does not designate specific cuts to K-12 education programs; it simply calls for reductions in non-defense discretionary spending over the next decade. Duncan, as he did in testimony earlier this year, is using unspecified spending reductions suggested in the budget to assume reductions in specific education programs—something the budget proposal does not do.
But even if federal education spending were to be cut by 20 percent—a goal worth pursuing—would that mean fewer teachers, fewer resources for poor and disabled students, and fewer after-school programs, as Duncan suggests?
Since the 1970s, federal per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled (after adjusting for inflation). Those increases haven’t all gone to the classroom or toward teacher salaries. Much of that money has gone toward expanding bureaucracy and non-teaching administrative positions in our nation’s public schools.
From 1970 to 2010, student enrollment increased a modest 7.8 percent, while the number of non-teaching staff positions increased 138 percent. But the number of teachers has also been increasing steadily over the decades.
In fact, if preliminary data from the National Center for Education Statistics is accurate, the student-teacher ratio in our nation’s public schools, at 15.2 to 1, will be lower this year than at any other point in history. Since 1970, the number of public school teachers increased 60 percent, while the number of students increased by only about 7 percent.
Duncan also claimed in his remarks that “10 million students could see their Pell Grants reduced, putting higher education further out of reach.”
What has put higher education “further out of reach” is ever-escalating college costs, which federal subsidies have exacerbated over the years. The House-approved budget aims to better target Pell funding to the low-income students it was originally designed to help while limiting the growth of the grants.
There is ample room to trim bureaucracy at the Department of Education. And it would be bad policy to continue blindly increasing federal education spending. The Obama Administration has been on an education spending binge for the past three and a half years: a nearly $100 billion bonus to the department in 2009 through the “stimulus,” a $10 billion public education bailout the year after that, and now a proposed $70 billion education budget (up from $68 billion) with $60 billion in supplemental spending.
Taxpayers cannot afford to continue financing the federal government’s failed experiment in education intervention. Like most federal policy areas, some fiscal restraint is needed in education spending. A better approach would be to give states more control of their share of federal education funding and allow for flexibility. Schools would get far more bang for their bucks with flexibility than by continuing to filter money through 150 bureaucratic federal education programs.