A Fistful of Dollars: Obama and the Department of Education

Already, too many politicians around the country are salivating at the prospect of Obama’s welfare, er, "stimulus" package. Not least of the slobbering pack are the Big Apple’s big dogs. Having created and now trying to contend with an ever-growing budget deficit, New York City bureaucrats are nearly giddy over the fact that they will receive a "get out of jail free card," if Uncle Sam drops billions of dollars their way.

Now, keeping in mind its mammoth deficits, consider how New York City has recently doubled the funding of schools slated to close within two years. For example, The New School for Arts and Science in The Bronx , which is expected to shut down in June, steered its superfluous cash toward purchasing a grand piano, new computers, and interactive blackboards. To boot, this phased-out school boasts a budget of $1.7 million for fewer than 80 students. That’s over $21,000 per student, more than double the national per-student average.  In total, some five schools teetering on closure had their per-pupil allowance ramped up from $14,000 to $28,000 — all while New York City is facing its largest budget shortfall ever.

You’d think with such displays of profligacy, the Empire State’s Governor David Patterson would get his own house in order before begging to suck from the public teat. He’s pleaded with Obama to give him $966 million for "K-12 school modernization and renovation" and at least $2 billion to transform State colleges into "green" pastures. (Never mind that it’s not a specified role of the federal government to reconstruct local schools or to "weatherize" institutions of higher ed.)

Although it may be disconcerting, the spending spree of New York City’s politicians shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since when do government bureaucrats ever act responsibly with our money? At least not since Milton Friedman’s time, apparently. The inimitable economist once argued that a tolerance for excessive and wasteful spending skyrockets in virtually any scenario when somebody else’s money is being spent on somebody else. He cautioned that the spender is prone to overindulgence because he gives attention neither to how much he spends nor to how he spends it. It’s not his hard-earned money, after all, so why proceed with prudence? Sound familiar? It should.

Friedman’s prescient warning encapsulates the attitude of unrestrained government so evident right now. It explains why elected officials in New York were reckless with education dollars to begin with, and how they have no shame in begging for more, and perhaps more importantly, it offers insight into Obama’s handling of the stimulus package. (Someone should tell these guys that confiscating funds from some citizens and wildly displacing them to others ends well only in animated Disney movies.)

In the end, we need to know if Obama can realistically assure us that the "education" portion of his infamous "porkulus" bill be spent with care and caution. Or will we see wasteful outlays and riotous expenditures spike — the kind that become causes célèbres (think "bridge to nowhere") in the news? For the answer, let’s look at the facts.

The badly misnamed "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009" appropriates roughly $150 billion for "education" purposes, more than double the current budget for the Department of Education. But the little-known truth is that the Department of Education’s own supervisory body has identified 47 programs that should be eliminated, at a savings of $3.3 billion a year to taxpayers. The Women’s Educational Equity, for instance, exists to support "educational equity for girls and women," but even the Department states, "There is no longer a need for a program focused on eliminating the educational gap for girls and women, as women have made educational gains that match or exceed those of their male peers." Still, the program remains. Moreover, the Office of Management of Budget singled out 758 congressional earmarks totaling $330 million in the Department of Education’s 2008 budget alone.

Waste aside, if throwing cash at "education" jolted an economy, as Obama insists, then we should all be swimming in Benjamins right now. Under the Bush administration, education spending boomed 64 percent from 2000 to 2006. In 2007, taxpayers shelled out $71 billion for elementary and secondary education, $36 billion for postsecondary education, and $7.6 billion for what the feds classify as "other education programs." Despite this record funding, liberals still mindlessly assert that we need a new fistful of dollars. To them, federal and state budgets ravaged by avaricious spending aren’t calls for fiscal tightening; they’re green lights to raid the public treasury. Ultimately, a taxpayer bailout to states like New York perversely rewards them for spending more money than they collect and does nothing to hinder such actions in the future. Frederick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute analogized the situation well: "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."