Education: A Spending Litmus Test
So the country avoided the fiscal cliff, at least one level of it. We supposedly have the tax situation settled (unless the administration demands more increases) while spending remains essentially untouched. The latter will be dealt with in the next couple of months, we’re told.
I don’t believe that any real cutting will be done. So much spending sounds so worthy it’s nearly impossible to get a majority of politicians to ever call for meaningful reductions. Who doesn’t want to help the young, the old, the middle class, the lower class, businesses, farmers, etc.? That so much of the largesse enriches bureaucrats and Beltway bandits, and that the side effects are often worse than the "cure," simply don’t matter.
But maybe this time all those people in Washington we supposedly elect to act on policy reality will be serious and responsible. Maybe that we spend far too much on programs that are way too ineffective – and are largely unconstitutional – will at last be acknowledged and acted upon by Congress and the White House.
Good luck. But if you want to know if the astronomically improbable is somehow happening, look no further than education. It is perfect ground for feel-good spending – it’s about helping people help themselves! – but has an absolutely dreadful record of producing net good.
Head Start – the flagship federal pre-school program – has repeatedly been shown to produce almost no lasting benefits. At the K-12 level, decades of humongous spending increases haven’t goosed achievement for 17-year-olds, our schools' "final products." And higher education spending? Its main accomplishment has been to fuel breathtaking price inflation, the kind of moonshot in which no federal employee should ever take pride.
Unfortunately, if the fiscal cliff tax deal is any indication – and it almost certainly is – expect no spending seriousness. Included in the deal was an extension of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which, of course, gives every American great opportunities. Actually, its politically spun moniker notwithstanding, the thing is such a stinker it garners boos from across the ideological spectrum. Left-leaners dislike it because it skews support toward the wealthy – families making up to $160,000 a year – while libertarians and conservatives oppose it as yet another government inducement to overspend on over-priced, opulent ivory towers. Oh, and it is unconstitutional. But because it sounds so nice, it sails on.
As we careen toward Fiscal Cliff II, keep your eyes on education. If real cuts don’t head that way, you can be pretty sure nothing serious will be done -- that politicians still aren't putting policy reality above peachy-sounding politics.