Having a grown-up budget conversation

Two
huge budget battles in the same week: That’s a decent description of
cherry-blossom season in Washington this year. The first is a dramatic game of
chicken over the contours of the FY2011 budget, and, as the Gadfly goes to
press, appears totally unresolved. While consequential, however, this melodrama
is much less so than the second big budget fight: over GOP budget chairman Paul
Ryan’s vision to reshape federal taxation and spending in FY 2012 and beyond.

At
first blush, Ryan’s plan looks dire for education spending, capping, as it
does, domestic discretionary spending at 2008 levels for at least five years.
There’s not much detail in the proposal around K-12 education but, assuming
that this cap applies to Department of Education programs, there will be
significantly less funding for Title I, IDEA, and the rest, particularly once
inflation is taken into account.

Still,
such a move would hardly be catastrophic for our schools, even if you believe
that “not enough money” is what ails them. Even a 30 or 40 percent cut to
federal education spending only amounts to a 3 or 4 percent cut in revenue for
most districts, thanks to Uncle Sam’s role as the very junior partner in school
finance. Particularly if less funding comes with less intrusion from the
Potomac, many schools might actually view this as a deal worth taking.

The
much larger challenge for school finance over the long term isn’t coming from
Washington but from demographic changes across the land. Baby Boomers are
starting to turn sixty-five, and the healthcare and retirement benefits we’ve
promised them are unsustainable without major tax increases or severe cuts to
spending, including to education. Even if you believe that schools have plenty
of money today, you don’t have to be a bleeding heart to see that they cannot
withstand more and more cuts forever.

Which
is why Ryan’s recommendation to cap Medicare spending, and make other
fundamental adjustments in long-established federal programs and practices, is
so important: We can’t continue to spend so lavishly on the old if we want to
have resources to invest in the young.

Maybe
that’s not what Paul Ryan is after. Perhaps he just cares about shrinking the
tax burden and minimizing the size of government across the board. Still, if
his proposal forces the country to have a grown-up conversation about the stark
choices we face, it gives advocates for education a fighting chance. Let the
conversation commence.

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

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