As we sprint to election day, everyone "knows" that President Obama has been a stanch champion of K-12 spending. If you're an Obama fan, this shows the President's smart priorities and commitment to schooling. If you're a critic, this is just one more example of Obama's big government proclivities. The story dovetails with the narrative of a clash between the budget-cutting challenger and the big-spending president.
The problem with this story? It's not true. Despite Mitt Romney's charge that "President Obama's policy response to every education challenge has been more federal spending," on-budget K-12 education expenditure has grown during Obama's first term at the slowest pace in two decades (aside from the massive, but unlikely to be repeated, infusions of ARRA and Edujobs). Now, RHSU readers know that I'm the last guy to disregard tens of billions in K-12 stimulus funds. But, for better or worse, those funds don't inflate the K-12 baseline like on-budget increases do.
Let's look at the numbers: Discretionary appropriations for K-12 education under Obama were $63.5 billion in 2009, $64.1 billion in 2010, $68.3 billion in 2011, and $68.1 billion in 2012. The administration has asked for $69.8 billion in 2013. This means that, even if the administration got its full request in 2013, spending would have increased 9.9% between 2009 and 2013 (and that's setting aside the looming sequester). That's the slowest rate of on-budget edu-spending growth in the past two decades.
In fact, spending growth has been much slower under Obama than it was under Republican George W. Bush or the budget-balancing Bill Clinton (who famously proclaimed "the era of big government is over"). During Bush's first term, between 2001 and 2005, spending grew substantially--from $42.2 billion to $56.6 billion (or by 34%). And even in Bush's second term, which included the start of the Great Recession, spending increased from $56.6 billion to $63.5 billion, or by 12.2%. Obama's edu-spending has also grown more slowly than did Clinton's. During Clinton's first term, from 1993 to 1997, spending rose from $23.8 billion to $26.6 billion, or by 11.7%. During his second term, spending rocketed up from $26.6 billion to $42.2 billion, or by 59%.
The infusion of edu-dollars in the stimulus and the drama that's surrounded Race to the Top has obscured these figures. Plus, the reality is inconvenient for everyone's narrative. Obama has repeatedly touted his K-12 investments; he's called for hiring 100,000 new teachers and has run ads championing smaller class size. It'd be a little off-message to brag that he's grown on-budget edu-spending at the slowest rate in two decades. And Romney's been eager to paint Obama as a big spender; he's got no reason to point out that Obama has actually been far more penurious than George W. Bush on this count.
The bottom line: there was a burst of edu-spending between 1997 and 2005, under Clinton and Bush. But on-budget spending has slowed remarkably since '05 and there's a lot more of that in store. The math is simple: the federal government is spending a trillion dollars a year it doesn't have, entitlements are on an unsustainable course, and nobody wants to raise taxes on the 98% of families earning less than $250,000 a year. This means that discretionary federal spending, across the board, will face continued pressure--and that'll be true under either Obama or Romney.
Those who dream of increasing federal spending on education will probably have to wait on broad-based tax increases and substantial entitlement cuts. Now, raising the retirement age from 67 to 69 would save trillions, and raising premiums on Medicare Part B could save $500 billion or more over the next decade. Raising income tax rates on middle-class families could generate trillions. But all of this is highly unlikely.
The reality for those who would champion a lot of new federal education spending is that no one has shown much inclination to tackle any of this. For instance, Vice President Biden recently guaranteed that "there will be no changes in Social Security," even though the actuaries report that Social Security will be broke by 2033. Meanwhile, Romney has been equally unwilling to stand up to seniors. Romney's campaign has argued that President Obama cut billions from Medicare to pay for his health care overhaul. And while the Romney/Ryan budget promises a long-overdue approach to rethinking Medicare, Robert Samuelson accurately observed in a recent Washington Post piece, "The Ryan budget spares older people from almost any change or sacrifice."
It's a safe bet that an Obama victory will mean more federal funding for education than would a Romney victory. But, either way, federal edu-spending is going to be on a lean diet for a good, long while.