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Improving education

Adam Newman | Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Improving our education system is one of the most important goals we can strive for as a society. Many today believe the best way to improve education is to spend more on education and anti-poverty programs. Spending more on education allows schools to provide broader educational services and spending more on anti-poverty programs places students in a better position to learn because they are well-fed, have good housing, etc. However, this plan for improving education becomes increasingly unlikely given America’s long-term fiscal scenario.
As the cost of healthcare rises and the baby boomers retire, the federal government will have to spend more on the rising cost of Social Security and Medicare, which together constitute roughly $63 trillion in unfunded liabilities according to the Social Security Trustees (an unfunded liability is the amount promised in benefits minus the amount in dedicated expected tax revenues given current law).
While the federal government only provides 10 percent of education funding, it is a critical source for schools in poorer areas through Title I funding and other education programs.
States also face tremendous unfunded liabilities due to the retirement pensions and health care promises they made to public sector employees, which constitutes a whopping combined $1.38 trillion of unfunded liability accorded to the Pew Research Center. States contribute a greater percentage of education funding at roughly 47 percent.
Finding a way to deal with these unfunded liabilities will be one our country’s greatest future challenges. Cutting Medicare and Social Security is very difficult due to political opposition from seniors and cutting employee retirement benefits is very difficult due to legal obligations. While raising taxes is one solution, raising taxes to cover even a portion of the unfunded liabilities will push tax revenue beyond historically high levels.
A politically easier way for policymakers to cover these liabilities is by cutting education funding and other anti-poverty programs. This is already happening in 35 states where school funding now stands below 2008 levels. Moreover, much of the recent federal “sequester” cut education funding: Head Start was cut by $406 million, Title I funding by $740 million and special education by $650 million.
 Thus, the amount of unfunded liabilities the federal government and state governments will need to cover in coming years coupled with the preference of policymakers to cut education and anti-poverty funding over other programs makes the belief that the only way to improve American education is by spending more increasingly unlikely.
However, there is a strategy that can handle future education spending decreases and still raise student outcomes. This view is largely associated with the “reform” movement in education, which focuses less on the extraneous factors of poverty and rather works to optimize controllable factors, such as teacher quality, the number of school hours, curriculum, etc.
Reformers also work to lower costs in education by closing failing and underused schools, streamlining the central bureaucracy, utilizing technology to reduce labor costs, laying off unnecessary staff, creating accountability at every level and investing the created savings into students. This vision can and will lead to better outcomes at a much lower cost to taxpayers.
Helping those who cannot help themselves with healthcare, housing, food, etc., is a moral imperative. However, those who believe the only way to improve education is by spending more on these items ignores the reality that, like it or not, the federal government and state governments are beginning to cut funding for education and anti-poverty programs to help pay down unfunded liabilities.
Even still, some ignore our fiscal reality and continue to advocate for more spending as the only way to save American education. These people certainly are entitled to their opinions, but they should know their plan deserves a failing grade.

Adam Newman is a senior studying political science. He can be reached at anewman3@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.