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What Would You Do With an Extra $1.5 Trillion to Spend on Education?

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Over the weekend our Congress passed a bill that is being described as "Cromnibus"—what you get when you combine the first letters of the words "continuing resolution" with the word omnibus. In short, they passed omnibus legislation, or a crazy mash up of hundreds of different bills, as a continuing resolution that would fund the government through this fiscal year. In the process, Congress avoided a government shutdown. The price, however, was steep.

That's because, as is often the case with omnibus bills, there were riders attached all over the place. Turns out it's a lot easier to fund and de-fund certain projects when they are hidden within the text of a 1,600 page bill that is released to the Congressmen who will vote on it just hours before the government is scheduled to shut down. The Washington Post has a helpful list of things that will and won't change as a result of the bill's passage, including, for example, a provision that will prevent the Department of Transportation from requiring truckers to get at least two nights of sleep before starting a new work week—a favor for the trucking industry that will no doubt make all of us a little less safe but will help keep those rollback prices low at WalMart. Remember back in the good old days when House Speaker John Boehner railed against Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats for ramming earmarks filled with "pork" down the throats of the American people and promised to end that practice? Now even Breitbart.com is calling him out on the hypocrisy. Stop and think about that for a second. Even Breitbart gets it.

If you're curious to know about some of the more egregious provisions that made it into the bill, your new friends at Represent.us have put together an entertaining video that highlights some of the things Congress spent our money on—and didn't spend it on—this week. There's so much to say about this, but I was drawn especially to the item that only earned fifth place on their list of bad ideas crammed into Cromnibus: Congress threw another $479 million at the F-35 fighter plane program, pushing the total expected cost at this point to a staggering $400 billion. Putting that into perspective, this program has cost taxpayers twice as much as it would have cost us to put a man on the moon.

Maybe it's worth it; I don't know. Maybe the pilots of these special jets need custom-made helmets that enable them to get a 360 degree view of the area outside the plane even if those helmets do cost $500,000 apiece. Maybe the planes will, in fact, make us safer. But this insane amount of money has me thinking: what else could we be spending it on? Sometimes I daydream about living in a world where we just throw dollar after dollar at our schools because the people running them insist that having those dollars is crucial to our national defense. What would that America look like? What could we do with $400 billion extra to spend on education? (And, just as an aside: $400 billion is where we are now; some have argued that the true total cost of the F-35 program will exceed $1.5 trillion before the plane finally stops flying some 50 years from now. That's trillion with a T. And it's more than the whole Cromnibus bill costs, a bill that funds the entire United States government through next September.)

To be clear, I'm not arguing that we should throw endless piles of public money at anything, even education. I'm just asking as a thought experiment: what if we lived in a country where we valued education so much that it caused us to spend money irrationally in pursuit of its perfection? There are, of course, already people who think we do, and who challenge people who think money might actually be helpful to schools to "prove" that it can "improve performance." Of course this is kind of like saying to the Pentagon: before we pay any more money for those fancy jets you haven't built yet, prove that they will save us from whatever we're afraid of. If only we funded the military-industrial complex that way.

To put this in perspective, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that total expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools in 2010-11, from local, state, and federal sources, was around $632 billion. So I guess you could say that $479 million is a drop in the bucket. But $400 billion isn't, and neither is $1.5 trillion. What would a $1.5 trillion investment over 50 years in technology or curriculum development or teacher education or modernizing our school buildings mean to our education system? What if we invested that amount of money in paying teachers a higher salary? I'm no expert at math but by my calculation we could use $400 billion to pay every one of the 4 million teachers in America a salary of $100,000. I know, I know; that would cost us $400 billion each and every year, but we probably spend about half that on teacher salaries to begin with (assuming $56,383 as the average teacher salary in 2012-13). What if we just added $100,000 to each teacher's salary over the course of his or her career? Assuming a teacher worked for 25 years, that would come out to an extra $4,000 in salary per year—not a tremendous amount of money, but no drop in the bucket, either. If we amortized an investment of $1.5 trillion over 50 years it would allow us to add $375,000 to each teacher's career earnings over that period. And I would note, too, that $400 billion is what Congress has appropriated to the F-35 program—so we're just talking federal spending here. The money we currently spend on teacher salaries primarily comes from state and local sources. If we supplemented that spending at the federal level what would it mean?

In other words, what if we had been given the choice: we can spend $1.5 trillion over the next 50 years on this war plane, or we can spend it on teacher salaries? Which do you think would have been better for the future of the country?

Again, I know: the politics are hopelessly complicated. We believe in local control. We want accountability. There are other priorities. It's just a thought experiment. I also know that people don't get into teaching for the money; most teachers would probably agree that what would be even better than a $100,000 salary is professional autonomy built upon a foundation of strong preparation for teaching and ongoing support for professional growth. But it's interesting to think about, isn't it? What if we spent all that money on the plane that doesn't work on schools, or on teachers, instead? If only we could be so irrational.

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