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The First Rule of Holes

After yesterday's post on NYC teachers and the fiscal crunch elicited such an appreciative and cheery response (or not), thought I'd stay with the theme for another day. This week, over on the National Journal's "Education Experts" blog, there's a debate about what conditions (if any) ought to be attached to Senator Tom Harkin's $23 billion education bailout. For those of you who thought yesterday's post to be harsh, fair warning: my stance is harder-edged than most.

The first rule of holes is: When you're in one, stop digging. Well, we're in a massive hole. And Senator Harkin's solution seems to be to call for another shovel.

Mike Antonucci does a nice job laying out the problem with Harkin's premise. In the past decade, states and districts spent the windfall that inflated property tax rolls generated during the good times. Now that the bill's come due, Harkin is calling for the feds to subsidize this inflated level of spending even as the economy clanks and grinds its way out of the bubble years. Other organizations, public and private, for-profit and non-profit, are responsibly cutting staffing, salaries, and benefits in light of changed circumstances. Indeed, that willingness to do some overdue belt-tightening is what economists are crediting for the eye-popping productivity gains we've seen in the last few quarters.

Harkin wants to allow school systems to keep living beyond their means, relying primarily on hackneyed metaphors intended to signal urgency. Borrowing more dollars to put off the day of reckoning is a bad idea. It's a bad idea even if it purchases some modest relief from costly, anachronistic policies (though at least we'd have some fig leaf of justification to tell our kids and grandkids when asked why we kept making promises we could no longer afford).

It's a particularly egregious move on Harkin's part because it violates Congress's own recently adopted "pay-go" guidelines. And it's disheartening to hear Secretary Duncan voicing support, as the proposal violates the "domestic spending freeze" that President Obama announced with so much fanfare in the run-up to the State of the Union. We need to start getting our house in order somewhere. And Harkin's $23 billion cash drop, lacking in offsets or funding, is a terrific place to start.

Look, we're spending at least $1.3 trillion that we don't have this year. No one likes to make tough choices. Those decisions only get made, in any organization, when times are so tough that it's easier for leaders to say no than to keep kicking the can down the road. Rather than give districts one more reprieve by claiming "it's for the kids," let's tell states and districts to tighten their belts--by trimming salaries, dialing back benefits, scrutinizing staffing, and doing those things that responsible employers do.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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