In Praise of the Teacher Bailout

By Derek Thompson

States are facing record budget shortfalls, which almost always result in huge cuts to education. So the jobs bills moving through Congress propose a $23 billion infusion to public schools to save between 100,00 and 300,000 teacher jobs. Neil McCluskey at the New York Post shrugs at the "teacher bailout," noting that 300,000 jobs lost would be "only" a 4.8 percent cut to the teacher labor force.

On the other hand, he's pretty concerned about the deficit.

So there is indeed a looming education catastrophe -- but it's not funding or job cuts. It is the bailout now moving through Congress that ignores the reality of inefficient public schooling, and adds to the already crushing burden of our federal debt.

Well, if we're playing the put-it-in-context game, $23 billion is "only" 0.6% of the 2010 budget. An unfortunate bailout, perhaps, but hardly catastrophic, especially when you consider that 200,000 lost jobs has a tangible cost on its own: to local demand, to student achievement, and to federal coffers when more people become eligible for benefits like unemployment insurance.

McCluskey's point about soaring education costs is fair. The rise in tuition and school fees have outpaced even medical inflation in the last 30 years. Education is one of our greatest job engines, but it's also something of a black hole where money enters, disappears and makes an ambiguous impact on student test scores. Smart education reform includes clear incentives for administrators to control costs and teachers to demonstrate achievement against a reasonable baseline. But we don't want schools firing teachers willy nilly in the fog of deep budget cuts that could wipe out programs based on their cost rather than their effectiveness.

At the risk of invoking a cliche, our education system is a bit like a painkiller junkie who just had his wisdom teeth pulled. In the long term, we probably want to wean the patient off drugs. In the short term, the patient happens to be in dire need of some drugs. Sec. Arne Duncan seems to acknowledge this conflict, and when the fog lifts, I hope he continues to pressure the teachers' union to loosen its grip on the bottle and allow administrators to better assess which teachers are actually teaching, and which are mostly collecting checks.

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