BLOG: Enough Already

April 20, 2022

This piece was originally published in Education Next on April 11, 2022

President Biden recently unveiled his 2023 budget request for the U.S. Department of Education, asking Congress for $88.3 billion in discretionary funding, a whopping 15 percent increase over 2022 and 20 percent increase over 2021.

So far, it hasn’t attracted much attention—perhaps understandably so. The advocacy groups in Washington that squawk loudly, and reliably, when spending is threatened are quietly pleased. All of them would get a new chunk of money. What’s more, a president’s budget request is just an opening bid in a protracted process. Congress, not the president, will shape the final numbers. And anyway, education department spending is a small fraction, less than two percent, of the federal government’s overall outlays.

The president’s budget request is worth noticing, though. It exemplifies all that’s wrong about the federal role in education funding. Looking critically at it will help explain why Betsy DeVos and other thoughtful conservatives advocate block-granting the whole amount to states without strings, and then weaning them off federal funds completely over time.

Some Context

The budget request comes in a context characterized by three main themes:

1. Inflation. We’re in the midst of 8 percent inflation and Congress has run up about $30 trillion in national debt—an amount that’s 108% of America’s GDP. If not for today’s magical-thinking economics, this situation would signal the need to lower, or at least flatten federal expenditures.

2. War. The war in Ukraine and security threats in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere could quickly jack up military and humanitarian-aid expenditures. Unlike education, which in the U.S. is typically funded through state and local governments, national security expenditures come through the federal government.

3. Unspent Funds. Our public education systems are already swimming in money—some would say drowning in it—thanks to more than $283 billion in “emergency” Education Stabilization Funds, most of which arrived long after most adults had been vaccinated. Advocacy groups representing school administrators and employees are asking Congress for permission to spend these funds through 2025 and beyond.

ESEA Title I-A

One of the big drivers of the Biden increase is Title I-A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as “Grants to Local Education Agencies for Economically Disadvantaged Students.” Appropriated at $17.5 billion for FY 2022, it’s the largest ESEA line item. More than 90 percent of districts and 60 percent of public schools receive a share. That’s based on the education department’s definition of “economically disadvantaged,” in case you thought Title I-A was directed to the less than 20 percent of American children who live in poverty.

Biden is asking for a $20 billion increase in Title I-A, more than doubling it. Weirdly, within the administration, this request is thought of as constrained. Education department politicos wanted to increase Title I-A by 200%—that is, triple it. They defensively say that the doubling is a down payment toward their true goal.

How does the Biden Administration justify this historic increase? Among education department staff, it’s enough that Biden, on the campaign trail, promised to deliver the three-fold increase. No further explanation is needed.

Among public-school employees, Title I is immensely popular. It is targeted at children that our K-12 system has historically failed to educate, providing more resources to low-income schools and, if nothing else, assuaging guilt. It helps that Title I flows painlessly from federal coffers, eliminating the need to fight for local taxes to generate revenue, as required by balanced budget requirements in all state and local governments. Finally, compliance and management of Title I creates more than a few jobs.

So, Title I has a good brand, especially among public-school employees.  But here’s the impolitic point to remember:  after close to $1 trillion in spending over nearly six decades, there’s not much by way of evidence that the funding has had a positive impact on student outcomes. Economically disadvantaged students are, sadly, still ill-educated today pretty much as they were in 1965, except for an increase in high school graduation rates. That is, low-income students are no better educated than 50 years ago, but at least more of them get a high school diploma.

Partisan Reactions

The powerful labor unions that represent teachers in elections (i.e., the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and their affiliates) overwhelmingly support Democrats and the Democratic Party. So, it’s understandable that Democrats in Congress line up enthusiastically behind major increases in Title I-A each year. As federal funding increases, so does the power of the labor union leadership, who, in turn, help Democrats in their election efforts.

Because of Title I-A’s sparkling brand, Republican Members of Congress are in a tough position. They probably know Title I-A isn’t transforming results for students, and most have figured out that this funding strengthens their archrivals in the next election. But they worry they will get smeared if they argue for its reduction.

All this leads to the infamous ratchet effect. When Democrats are in power, they ratchet up the amount appropriated through Title I-A. When Republicans are in power, they accept the new level of funding. Over time, that interplay has increased Title I-A more than six-fold, from $2.7 billion in 1980 (when the labor unions succeeded in creating the Department of Education, partly to advocate for increased federal funding for K-12).

Hiding Increases

In a clever maneuver to accelerate this ratchet effect, most of the proposed Biden increase doesn’t even show up in the education department’s total Presidential Budget Request. The department labeled $16 billion of the $20 billion increase as “mandatory” funding, so it doesn’t count toward the discretionary total and, once approved, would not need to be appropriated each year. Like Social Security and other entitlement programs, it would get spent automatically. Congress is spared the inconvenience of appropriating it each year, which is tantamount to saying the spending level would be a new, permanent base.

In addition to Title I-A mandatory funding, the new request categorizes other spending as mandatory within the department’s budget. Most of this is outside of elementary and secondary funding and already approved by Congress. Total department outlays—not even including $100 billion or so lent out as direct student loans each year—are roughly $47 billion more than the $88.3 billion in requested discretionary funding.

Although Congress typically wants as much Title I-A funding as possible to end up in local districts, Biden’s 2023 request officially holds back $100 million of it to reward states that establish “School Funding Equity Commissions” and implement “resource equity reviews.” Federal officials have a long history of dangling funds to manipulate states, which have plenty of funds themselves already for such studies and commissions if they thought it was the highest and best use of their resources.

Wait, We Did Triple It – Twice Over

When the time is right, the Biden Administration will probably boast that Democrats under his leadership already more than tripled Title I-A. The Covid relief bill enacted in March 2021, the American Rescue Plan, distributed $109.8 billion to school districts using Title I-A shares. That alone was nearly a seven-fold increase compared to the 2021 level of $16.5 billion.

To be fair, we should add to that amount the emergency funds appropriated using the Title I-A formula in 2020, when bipartisan majorities under Republican leadership approved two tranches for the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund, totaling $67.7 billion. Overall, for every dollar that districts received in Title I-A funds the year before the pandemic, districts received almost 13 during it, including the regular, non-emergency appropriation. Most districts also increased their state and local revenue during this period. No one is kidding when they say, “swimming in money.”

When Is It Enough?

The secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, introduced this budget by saying, “budgets are an expression of values.” If he meant to say this administration values its political allies without regard for student outcomes or stewardship of taxpayer resources, I give him credit for honesty.

One should expect a little pandering in every president’s budget request. It’s more a political document than a serious proposal. It’s mostly used to broadcast an administration’s priorities and fiscal policy. Usually, however, pandering on behalf of one’s political allies is tempered by economic and political realities.

With the education department’s request, Biden takes pandering to a new level. More money is being thrown at just about everything his political allies could hope for. It was revealed just two weeks after Congress increased education department spending for fiscal year 2022 (which ends in five months) by 4 percent to $76.4 billion.

All of these expenditures bolster the status quo. They don’t encourage the changes that our students need and deserve. Instead, the spending doubles down on a system that isn’t working for a growing number of students and families.

Let’s all hope Congress pushes back, and starts talking about rolling back federal education spending. It’s time someone says, “enough already.”

Jim Blew, DFI cofounder