Heritage: Duncan Not Truthful on Republican Education Plans

Was U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan too liberal with the facts when he said that the Republicans’ proposed budget would translate to big education funding cuts? That seems to be the conclusion drawn by Lindsey Burke in her article for The Heritage Foundation’s The Foundry blog.

In his address to the Democratic National Convention held in Charlotte, North Carolina last week, Duncan said that the budget proposal meant that schools would be forced to make drastic cuts in staff and resources. But a quick read of the actual language shows that there is no specific mention of any cuts to K-12 programs, only a general across-the-board 20% reduction in non-military expenses.

Even if the budget passes as is, it’s unlikely that the quality of American public schools would greatly suffer as a result. Although the amount the government spends per student has steadily risen since the 1970s, the additional funding didn’t go directly go into the pockets of teachers or for the benefit of the students. On the contrary, the biggest beneficiary seems to be administrative bureaucracy at the local, district and even state level.

From 1970 to 2010, student enrollment increased a modest 7.8 percent, while the number of non-teaching staff positions increased 138 percent. But the number of teachers has also been increasing steadily over the decades.

In fact, if preliminary data from the National Center for Education Statistics is accurate, the student-teacher ratio in our nation’s public schools, at 15.2 to 1, will be lower this year than at any other point in history. Since 1970, the number of public school teachers increased 60 percent, while the number of students increased by only about 7 percent.

In listing the possible consequences should the Republican budget be adopted, Duncan also mentioned the possible reduction in Pell Grant funding which he said would substantially reduce the affordability of college education for middle-class Americans. And once again, Duncan entirely missed the point, says Burke — what has made higher education increasingly unaffordable isn’t the reduction in federal student aid, but the escalating tuition. She points out the irony that the very program designed to help low-income students overcome this particular hurdle is what, in large part, contributed to this out of control growth.

There is ample room to trim bureaucracy at the Department of Education. And it would be bad policy to continue blindly increasing federal education spending. The Obama Administration has been on an education spending binge for the past three and a half years: a nearly $100 billion bonus to the department in 2009 through the “stimulus,” a $10 billion public education bailout the year after that, and now a proposed $70 billion education budget (up from $68 billion) with $60 billion in supplemental spending.