Education & Autonomy
Will backtracked last week from this post, which included a chart detailing federal spending increases in education and the rather flat results over the past few decades. And I wish he hadn’t, despite the many good points brought up about education spending, possible causes for increases in federal education spending, and so forth.
Here’s the thing – during those same years that the federal government has increased its role in education funding, state and local governments have become increasingly dependent on the federal government to shore up budgets, step in during a crisis, and keep them solvent. Look no further than the recent stimulus money and the bailout of the states. Many states could barely sustain their commitments to education budgets without federal padding. Is there any reason to think this will change next year? Next recession?
It’s not so much that this is a serious problem right now, either. As Will notes, the federal government is responsible for only about 8.3 percent of all education spending in the country. The problem lies in the future, as state and local governments continue down the path of dependency, relying more and more on the federal government to catch them when they fall, and doing whatever it takes to make sure they qualify for the handouts.
While the feds may have a carrot and stick in mind, what really starts to happen is that local school districts and state governments begin to slack on their fiscal and educational commitments, and instead begin to focus on the administrative task of getting more and more federal money. They don’t look for ways to cut wasteful spending, or increase productivity (except in the generic way the feds want them to), because they have the scent of a bailout should things head south. This works in wonkland – the experts up top get to dictate the rules of the game, and the poor saps at Joe Sixpack Elementary do what they’re told and create a bunch of eight-year-old geniuses. But in the real world it suffers from the constraints of reality – it becomes a game of standardized tests, unwieldy uniformity, and expensive red tape.
Once you lose your fiscal autonomy, you begin to lose your creative autonomy, too. It doesn’t happen quickly or obviously, either. This sort of surrender is to the thief in the night. It’s a debtor’s surrender.