Bloated Education Spending: The Party’s Over

(Centennial Fellow) An enduring memory from the early days of the iconic “Monday Night Football” was when the game got out of hand and the late “Dandy Don” Meredith—partner to Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford—would croon, “Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over.”

Today astute mavens of the Education Establishment—principally the teacher unions—are beginning to hear echoes of that melancholy tune. Across America from Albany to Sacramento a fifty state rebellion is brewing against the power, privilege, and pensions of the most arrogant and successful political machine in American history.

In a supreme irony the new leaders of this assault on union power are Governors of the very same Democratic Party that has kow–towed to those unions for over half a century. State CEOs Cuomo (N.Y.), O’Malley(Md.), Patrick (Mass.), Quinn (Ill.), and Brown (Calif.) in a bizarre case of “recovered memory” seem to have suddenly recalled the sage words of their greatest hero Franklin Roosevelt who in 1937 stated unequivocally that “the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted in the public service.” Who knew?

Reading the inaugural addresses of the above noted gentlemen one might think they were “channeling” Ronald Reagan, but their real role model has been the outsize figure of Republican Governor Chris Christie who for the last year has in gutsy and colorful fashion stood up to the bullying tactics of the New Jersey teachers union (NJEA) that he dared to challenge.

The Democrats saw that Christie not only achieved budget cutting success despite a Democratic legislature but in doing so also won a nationwide popularity that put him atop Republican Presidential preference polls.

It is no mystery why even Democratic governors are turning against their long time allies. The reason is that they all have realized that bloated education spending is far and away the biggest threat to battered state budgets.

If Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are the Entitlements that swallowed the federal budget, then Education is the Entitlement that swallowed state and local budgets.

In the words of Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute “The key structural problem in state and local finances is education, not health care … (It is) the $600 billion dollar elephant in the statehouse.”

Consider the following statistics:

  • Inflation adjusted education spending increase 1970–2010: 102%
  • Teachers increased 61% while students increased just 8% (1970–2008)
  • Education spending as a share of tax revenue increased 90% from 1992 to 2011 at the state level and 73% at the local level.
  • Including pension plans, capital construction, and debt service K–12 education consumes 56% of all state and local tax revenue.

To date 36 governors have stated their intention to reduce K–12 spending. Some do it reluctantly (usually Democrats) but all speak in a vein of realism: They have no choice. In the words of the old–time bank robber Willie “The Actor” Sutton: “That’s where the money is.”

The best symbol of this emerging new environment has to be New York State—the ultimate citadel of union power and corruption. How ironic that the son of Mario Cuomo—a slavish acolyte of union power in his day—should be the one to announce a 7.3% cut in K–12 spending ($1.5 billion dollars; 409 million in New York City alone.)

Predictably union hacks decried Cuomo’s proposed cuts, and just as predictably hid concerns for their perks behind concern for “our kids”. Lamented one spokesman, “the damage to students will be permanent because children do not get a second chance” but the bulk of his text dwelt on the potential devastation of “teacher lay–offs and larger class sizes.”

Governor Cuomo’s sensible observation that “Qualitative decline does not automatically follow a thoughtful Quantitative draw down” isn’t cutting it with the union gang, but that will be precisely the test for the future.

There is abundant evidence around the country and the world that America can have much better schools at much lower costs. Teacher unions will either adapt and sign on for that mission, or end up occupying a well deserved spot on the ash heap of history.

The struggle to reclaim America’s educational greatness will not be easy, but it is a battle our country can and must win.


Former Colorado Education Commissioner (1997–2007) William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Human Events.

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