WASHINGTON – If the government spends billions on education to help jump-start the staggering economy, what happens when things improve and schools have grown used to the largesse?
That is what Republicans are asking about President Barack Obama's recovery plan, the largest increase in federal money for schools.
Critics say it is not a short-term boost but an immense expansion that will be impossible to roll back.
"It'll never go away," said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "You're talking about a permanent increase at a time when we are in the worst financial shape we've ever been in."
"What will happen two years from now when the Democrat spending spree comes to an end?" asked California Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.
The measure making its way through Congress would achieve a long-sought goal of Obama and other Democrats. For the first time, it would fully fund No Child Left Behind, former President George W. Bush's education program. Democrats complain Bush never provided enough money for the kindergarten-through-12th grade program.
Not a coincidence, critics said.
"These are political goals," said Checker Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. "In other words, other fish are being fried here."
Republicans can only imagine the pressure they will face, once spending goes up, to keep it that way.
Democrats say that is an argument for another day.
"At the moment, my interest is in rebuilding the economy," said Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House education committee.
State governments are making dramatic cuts to education as revenue from sales and property taxes plummet, said Miller, D-Calif. Class sizes are set to rise and hundreds of thousands of teachers have gotten layoff notices, he said.
"This is two-year money," Miller said. "As their revenue base is restored, as sales taxes start to grow, if the economy recovers and home values start to stabilize, they will have to transition to return to reliance on that.
"But it's clearly not in the national interest to have this system collapse at this moment in time," Miller said.
School spending accounts for about one-sixth of the $825 billion economic recovery package, which also includes money for health care, energy, highway projects and tax cuts. As with education spending, critics say the measure won't help the economy fast enough and will saddle the government with long-term, budget-wrecking commitments.
The plan would spend about $20 billion quickly to build and fix up classrooms, from kindergarten through college, in an effort to spur job creation and growth. States would receive $39 billion to stave off cuts in schools.
But it would also pump an extra $26 billion into two long-term programs, No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The bill includes a $15 billion bonus fund to encourage reforms related to teaching and student tests.
"None of this is going to stimulate anything," Coburn said.
School districts do spend a lot of the No Child Left Behind and special education money on teacher salaries. But they have five years to spend money from the two programs — and a long track record of spending it slowly.
There currently is more than $5 billion in unspent federal education money, according to the Education Department. In other words, schools and states are still sitting on the money, McKeon said.
Eventually, they do spend most of it, although the department says just under $100 million is returned to the federal treasury every year.
"Is there any way our education system will be able to absorb the additional dollars?" McKeon said.
The measure would also double spending on Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college, raising the maximum award by $500 to $5,350.
With surging demand for college and relentless tuition inflation, congressional budget hawks have struggled to curtail the program. Only twice in the history of the program — amid recessions in 1980 and 1981 — has the maximum Pell Grant been lowered because Congress failed to authorize enough money.
Even those who asked for the money acknowledge it will be difficult to cut later.
Terry Hartle, lobbyist for the American Council on Education, the leading higher education group in Washington, called it "the tail problem," for spending that stretches far beyond the short term stimulus package.
Sending the money through government programs such as Pell Grants and No Child Left Behind gets the money out faster, Hartle said, but it is also harder to cut later than if the money went directly to states through block grants.
"Don't get me wrong. I think this is a very good set of proposals for college students and families," he said. "We do know that college enrollments climb during recessions as people go to school to complete a skill or get a degree, so we're likely to see a big increase in enrollment."
Miller, the House committee chairman, said lawmakers talked several times with state governors who wanted the money in block grants. But he said Congress wants to make certain the money goes directly to schools and to kids.
"These are formulas that have been tested; they've worked," Miller said. "It directs it to schools in the most need, to the populations in the most need."
Miller hopes it helps.
"None of us have lived through these kinds of circumstances," he said. "Our parents can tell us about the Great Depression, but we haven't lived through it."
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