Opinion: Sometimes, leading is choosing least of all evilsLast spring when Congress began seriously discussing the $26 billion Medicaid/school assistance or bailout bill, every superintendent in the country began receiving excited e-mails from national educational lobbyists asking us to contact our senators and representatives. I actually read the first one and then deleted it. The rest never saw the digital light of day before suffering the same, quicker, fate.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
Last spring when Congress began seriously discussing the $26 billion Medicaid/school assistance or bailout bill, every superintendent in the country began receiving excited e-mails from national educational lobbyists asking us to contact our senators and representatives. I actually read the first one and then deleted it. The rest never saw the digital light of day before suffering the same, quicker, fate.
“It’s absurd,” I told myself. With the national debt and annual deficit growing like this summer’s grass, Congress wasn’t about to approve another prohibitively expensive stopgap measure giving schools $10 billion to stop cutting teaching positions which wouldn’t work in any case. Don Quixote wouldn’t tilt at that windmill.
And, of course, I was wrong, not about the idiocy of such legislation but about its chances for success. It passed and the people in Washington who do such things drafted flexible rules for the spending so that it could quickly find its way to the states. Before continuing, in the interests of disclosure, allow me to state upfront that I am not a Keynesian and thus do not believe government can spend an economy out of a recession. Thus, I think the underpinnings of this bill were wrongheaded.
But it isn’t just this that makes this bill a mistake. It includes such other well-understood critiques as:
1. Federal monies come with strings and education will soon be saddled with more inefficient, ineffective and even silly federal rules.
2. Federal dollars come from local sources and spending decisions at the federal level are not only less appropriate than local ones, they also suffer from a portion of the spending stream being diverted from the purpose of the spending into government bureaucracy and overhead.
3. The national debt load that results from such spending will be a long-term drag on the economy and mean less net dollars in the long run as future dollars are used, not for legitimate public purpose, but rather to pay interest on past loans.
There is, however, still one other error made in this legislation that overwhelms pretty much all of this. It won’t work. It won’t have the intended effect.
The point of the $10 billion was to prevent the cutting of teaching positions. Had Congress passed the bill in, say, March and had the money traveled quickly to states and local school districts, schools might have decided they could at least have delayed some cuts until next year. But this bill was passed in August, 4 or 5 months too late for most schools to do much about their cuts. School has begun or will soon do so, schedules are made, all the engines of school logistics are set in motion and the chance these dollars will change much of that is minuscule. Even in those few cases where it does make a difference, these teachers will keep their jobs for one more year and then lose them next spring when all the federal bailout money finally runs out.
And even this is probably too rosy a scenario. What could also happen is the state governments, as South Dakota has done, accept the money and apply it to the state aid they are already giving the schools, since they are in deficit, meaning virtually no immediate impact on the schools.
Oddly enough, in this world resembling more an Escher painting than one from the School of Realism, what the state has done makes pretty good sense. The Feds pour borrowed money on the states. If the states don’t accept that money, it is just redistributed to other states and thus the Feds can’t even be partially dissuaded from their profligate ways.
So the state accepts the dollars and has at least two choices: channel the funds immediately to the schools or use them to reduce the state deficit. Given the fact that it is August, most schools would simply use the dollars to reduce their own current deficits. In either case, the purpose of the bill — not cutting teaching positions — is unattained.
Since schools cannot hope to see significant increases in the state aid formula until the state’s fiscal house is in better order (though, in the interests of fairness, it is important to note that this state’s fiscal house is in better order than most if not all others), reducing the state’s current deficit spending may be the best of all possible bad choices.
If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s not. Sometimes leadership is about choosing the least of all evils.