- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

The Obama and congressional Democrats’ campaigns were all about change. But judging by the education portions of the $819 billion stimulus package that passed the House this week, we should expect a lot more of the same.

The package contains some $125 billion of education spending, almost all of it devoted to pre-existing programs. Thirteen billion dollars will go to Title I programs for low-income students. Another $14 billion is for special education. Pell Grants for college students will receive $16 billion. And $54 billion is marked for the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which is supposed to help states avoid cuts in current educational services.

Remember the campaign promises about expanding access to preschool as the top educational priority? Well, preschool receives just $4.1 billion, half of it going to the already existing Head Start program and half to child-care block grants to states. Talk of new preschool programs dominated campaign rhetoric, but preschool accounts for less than one-half of one percent of stimulus spending.

In total, four-fifths of the $125 billion education stimulus package is directed toward existing commitments rather than creating new ones. Most of the remaining funds are devoted to school construction projects ($20 billion) and a few billion more for education technology and broadband.

Don’t expect much educational improvement from these “new” expenditures for construction. Stanford’s Eric Hanushek reviewed 91 analyses of the effect of school facilities on student achievement and found that 86 percent showed no impact. He also reviewed 34 analyses of the effects of school facilities in developing countries and found that 65 percent of those studies showed a positive effect on student achievement. So, once you get beyond grass huts, spending more on shiny buildings doesn’t help students learn more. Buildings don’t teach kids; people do.

Nothing in the stimulus package changes who teaches children or what they will be doing. It’s just more of the same. The largest chunk - $54 billion for the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund - doesn’t even do that, since it is designed merely to offset reductions in state and local tax revenue.

Critics could view the educational stimulus package as a wasted opportunity for reform. And it is. But conservatives should be grateful that at least it doesn’t create permanent commitments to new, expensive programs that are as ineffective as current, expensive programs.

If the Democrats had really delivered on their preschool promises, we would have seen tens of billions of federal dollars directed toward a new program that would never go away and would still fail to help students. The idea of expanding the public school system to younger children would have crowded out existing preschool options and created a lower-quality public monopoly. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, 66 percent of three- to five-year-olds already attend preschool, with the percentage rising to 86 percent among five-year-olds. Most families that want preschool are already finding it. All that a new federal entitlement program would do is shift more of those students to publicly operated preschools with unionized staff. Because the stimulus package failed to fulfill the Democrats’ preschool campaign promises, we have dodged that expensive bullet - for now.

We should similarly be grateful that the lion’s share of the education stimulus package was devoted to off-setting losses in state and local tax revenue. Since it doesn’t create any new expenditures or program commitments, it should be easier to phase those funds out when the economy improves. Similarly, school construction funding may be unproductive, but it’s not a permanent new commitment. When those dollars are spent and projects are completed, we can stop. Sure, existing Title I and special-ed programs received an infusion of extra dollars, but faster growth in the next few years can be countered with slower growth in the future.

Of course, if this money isn’t really going to help children learn, it would be best if we didn’t spend it at all. But Congress seems determined to burn giant piles of cash in the hopes that we will be stimulated by its warm glow. Given the circumstances, it’s some consolation that the current education stimulus isn’t much worse.

Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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