Compromising Our Future

Sudden cuts in federal education spending demonstrate government priorities gone awry

Two thousand and six may just turn out to be the year of reckoning for the carefree spending of the Bush administration, and federal education spending has assumed the part of the paschal lamb. As tax cuts, increased defense spending, and the enactment of Medicare prescription drug benefits legislation ballooned our national debt during President George W. Bush’s first term in office, it became increasingly clear that our spending habits were unsustainable. Four increases of the national debt ceiling could not stave off the reality that something had to be sacrificed. And with that in mind, the House and Senate set about cutting federal programs, finally, in February, reaching a compromise—the compromise of America’s future.

In total, roughly one-third of the $40 billion budget cuts over the next five years is being made on the back of the American student with 48 Department of Education programs scheduled for termination, the majority of which were designed to specifically target low-income, illiterate, and disabled children. Despite rhetoric from President Bush about the importance of education, his presidency has again and again undermined higher education in America.

Of particular concern were the significant cuts in government loans for higher education. The cuts, which totaled about $12.7 billion, included raising the interest rates on various loans as well as an end to inflationary increases in the amount of money Pell grants award. According to the College Board, 12.3 million students borrowed money using these government loans in 2004-2005. Such fiscal irresponsibility is unconscionable. These loans are a critical part of student funding for higher education, and the increased interest rates will discourage or prevent deserving students from attending college. With college education playing such an important role in individuals’ future income and well-being, these spending cuts will exacerbate the damning inequalities, which are slowly turning the U.S. into a two-class society.

Much of Bush’s cuts have been made under the umbrella of broader education reforms in which “accountability” has been the all-encompassing buzzword. But no amount of rhetoric can compensate for empty proposals which lack the bite of substantive programs. The U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education suggested, among other initiatives, instituting a system of standardized testing across the nation’s colleges and universities and creating a national database that recorded educational data for all U.S. college students. Ultimately, however, Bush’s proposals amount to reducing productive educational spending to make way for large, misguided bureaucracies.

Testing college students will not improve their education (particularly if they cannot afford to go to college in the first place), and it is far from clear, as the Commission later acknowledged, that any standardized tests could be developed to accurately reflect the diversity of higher education curricula. Moreover, setting up a national database to track student performance, in addition to throwing serious privacy concerns by the wayside, will divert federal funds from programs that would produce tangible benefits—not more bureaucracy. Should Bush’s vision prevail, he has left us with little confidence in what will happen to American education should institutions, with their budgets reduced, fail to meet the thresholds they are being held “accountable” to. Whatever money might be spent on these tenuously constructed proposals would better serve bolstering notoriously underfunded secondary schools, where standardized testing can be used more effectively, and making higher education more affordable. While these traditional routes don’t have the ideological pizzazz of “accountability,” they offer real solutions to real problems.

Certainly, there were some positive changes implemented this past year. Congress and President Bush created Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grants which offered financial incentives for students studying science, math, or certain foreign languages. These $4,000 grants wisely encourage undergrads to explore academic areas the U.S. is currently perceived to be lagging behind the rest of the world. Congress also passed an initiative allowing purely online colleges to receive federal funding. While an “e-ducation” might not be the same as attending college in person, the legislation recognizes that not everyone has the opportunity to do so and potentially gives low-income individuals an affordable alternative.

But these more minor policy shifts mask what will amount to the first decrease in overall federal education spending in a decade. To be sure, the Bush administration is not alone in these misdeeds; Democrats and Republicans alike have stood by as the education of U.S. youth has become a singularly lagging priority in federal planning. Ma and Pa America seem all too willing these days to forget its children, all too willing to forget the importance of education, which has always been the the great equalizer of our society, allowing people from different backgrounds to better themselves and to improve their lives. Hopefully, next year will see more of the positive developments and less of the negative. Unfortunately, if the past is any guide, the future is not bright.

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