As Congressional leaders continue to wrangle over the exact size of the stimulus package and the tax cuts therein, The New York Times today reports that the proposed stimulus would provide $150 billion to education. That spending increase would inject funds into programs like Head Start, provide aid to needy school districts, and increase subsidies to banks that engage in lending to college students. The stimulus bill currently before the House represents a gargantuan increase in education--the Times reports that the bill would nearly double the Department of Education's current budget.
Some of the fine print in this bill concerns me. For example, further subsidizing student loans when such loans already overwhelmingly favor the lender strikes me as counterproductive, especially given the US government's decidedly mixed success in promoting liquidity in the credit markets generally. But overall, I can't see how this is anything but a good thing. One of the tensions with this stimulus plan has been Obama's stated desire to lay careful groundwork for the future while at the same time getting money out the door to quickly stimulate the economy. Clearly, the more planning an infrastructure project requires, the longer it's going to take for that money to get spent. Upgrading our energy grid for alternative energies, for example, will take months of careful and deliberate planning. And the longer it takes for money to get spent, the less of a chance the stimulus actually has of kickstarting the economy. Education, though, is an ongoing investment in the future of America--and an investment that is severely underfunded, particularly in light of the current economic crisis. Spending money on education thus makes good sense, both as an investment and an immediate stimulus.
Still, this bill is hardly a panacea for all that ails American education. Much of the money in the stimulus plan is simply geared towards the physical maintainance of schools and controlling potentially devastating damage to education caused by a plunge in state property taxes. Many school districts across the country now face budget shortfalls and are having trouble making payroll; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asserts that the plan will avoid "hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs." That's a start, and maintaining America's educational system in the face of the real estate crash is an absolutely worthy and necessary goal. But if American education is to fulfill its full potential in preparing the next generation to meet the challenges of the future, we'll need more than just a one-time governmental cash infusion. Perhaps structural changes are needed--tying educational funding to state property taxes seems like a good idea when the housing bubble is expanding, but seems like an awful idea once that bubble bursts. Or, perhaps, we simply can't rely on government to solve all our problems, and giving America's children a great education will also require private investment and concerted action by all members of our collective community.