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National Review Online


Change that Won't Happen . . . Thankfully

February 04, 2009

By Jay P. Greene

The Democrats' 2008 campaigns, congressional and presidential alike, were all about change. But judging by education's share of the $819-billion stimulus package that passed the House last week, we should expect a whole lot more of the same. Considering the alternatives, though, that's a good thing: At least we're not committing ourselves to increased spending for decades to come.

The spending package contains roughly $125 billion in education spending, but four-fifths of it is devoted to pre-existing programs: $13 billion for Title I programs for low-income students, $14 billion for special education, $16 billion for Pell Grants, and $54 billion to help states avoid cutting their own education budgets. Most of the remaining funds go to school-construction projects ($20 billion), with a few billion more sprinkled in for education technology and broadband.

Liberal critics could claim that this is a wasted opportunity for significant change. And they'd be right. Remember the campaign promises about expanding access to pre-school as the top educational priority? Well, pre-school receives just $4.1 billion—less than one half of one percent of stimulus spending—half of it going to the existing Head Start program, the other half to the states as child-care block grants.

But conservatives should be grateful that at least all this spending doesn't create permanent commitments to new, expensive programs that are as ineffective as the current, expensive programs are. Had the Democrats delivered on their pre-school promises, we would have seen tens of billions of federal dollars directed toward a new program that would never go away and would still fail to help students. The idea of expanding the public-school system to younger children would have crowded out existing pre-school options and created a lower-quality public monopoly.

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, 66 percent of three- to five-year-olds already attend pre-school, with the percentage rising to 86 percent when only counting five-year-olds. Most families that want pre-school are already finding it for their children. All that a new federal entitlement program would do is shift more of those students to publicly operated pre-schools with unionized staff. We have dodged that expensive bullet—for now.

We should similarly be grateful that the lion's share of the education stimulus package—$54 billion for the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund—will go to offset losses in state and local tax revenue. It should be possible to phase those funds out of the federal budget when the economy improves.

As for school-construction funding, it's unproductive. Stanford's Eric Hanushek has reviewed 91 analyses of the effect of school facilities on student achievement; 86 percent showed no impact. He reviewed 34 similar analyses of school facilities in developing countries; 65 percent of those studies did show an impact. So, once you get beyond grass huts, spending more on buildings doesn't help students learn more. Buildings don't teach kids, people do. Still, when those construction projects end, so will their funding.

The sad fact is, nothing in the stimulus package changes who teaches children or how they will do it. It's just more of the same.

Of course, if this money isn't really going to help children learn, it would be best if we didn't spend it at all. But Congress seems determined to burn giant piles of cash in the hopes that its warm glow will stimulate us. Given the circumstances, it's some consolation that the current education stimulus won't force us to burn larger and larger piles of cash forever into the future.

Original Source:



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