The President???s cynical budget proposal

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Obama speaking

   Photo by Daniel Borman

we must hand it to them: The folks behind Ed in ’08 were successful
after all. It just appears that they are achieving their goal—making education
a central plank in the presidential election—four years behind schedule. As
reported by Politico this week, the President used “the
issue of education to help frame the budget debate.” Expect to hear a lot about
his support for America’s public schools (versus Republican indifference)
between now and November 2012.

But his
rhetoric—that education is a critical investment that deserves protecting—isn’t
backed up by his own policy. Sure, Mr. Obama called for a few small-scale
programs that Republicans will oppose, like extending Race to the Top (for districts
this time, not states
and recruiting 100,000 new math and science teachers. But this is “school
uniforms” sort of stuff. Regardless of what happens to the federal education
budget (which will sway a few billion in this direction or a few billion in
that—on an Education Department budget nearing $80 billion), even under the
“draconian” Republican plan for 2011),
education spending in the real world is going to take a huge hit. That’s
because of the “New Normal”—as Arne Duncan
described it—that is playing out in states and local districts, with enormous
budget cuts pending.

Obama is sincere about “protecting education,” he would call for another
massive bailout, on the order of $100 billion or so, to hold the nation’s
schools harmless from the steep drop in state and local revenue. (To be clear,
I’m not advocating for that, for a variety of
That’s what it would take to keep schools level-funded. But he doesn’t have the
political capital to suggest such a thing, so he’s chosen to play presidential
politics instead. (“Democrats in Washington are “for” education. Republicans
are “against.”)

To his
credit, Obama’s budget proposal would provide incentives (via the new
Race to the Top program mostly) for districts to find ways to do more with
less. So he’s not tone-deaf to the funding cliff over which localities are
currently tumbling. But by pretending that his policies would address the
problem, he’s participating in the worst kind of cynical politics. It’s a long
way from “the change we can believe in.”

piece originally appeared (in a
slightly different format) on Fordham’s
blog. Sign up to receive a daily compilation of Flypaper posts here.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.