OEDEL: State of the education lobby

January 26, 2014 

Georgia state Sen. Jason Carter and state school Superintendent John Barge both want to be Georgia’s next governor, replacing Gov. Nathan Deal. It must seem tempting to direct a $20 billion budget ($42 billion, counting federal funds).

But challengers, beware. Gubernatorial fiscal discretion is remarkably limited, even in times of rising revenues. Governors nationwide usually serve more as fiscal caretakers than captains, lucky just to keep their ships afloat, proceeding apace. These days, governors rarely chart a new fiscal course or even appreciably adjust course.

Washington is notoriously handcuffed by bureaucracies and special interests. But so, too, are the state capitals.

Most state governors issue a state-of-their-state address and budget about this time of year, Deal giving Georgia’s Jan. 15. His report was like those of many governors nationwide who have to balance their budgets while kowtowing to their key bureaucratic constituencies.

Typically first at the trough is the public education establishment. In Georgia, it gets about half of all state funding. Next are the fast-growing entitlement lobbies, like Medicaid’s lobby. Medicaid, Georgia’s largest entitlement program, would be even bigger if Deal capitulated to federal coercion to supersize it.

For Georgia’s 2014 fiscal year beginning July 1, Deal issued a 428-page budget. In his cover letter and speech, Deal highlighted his “special” initiatives -- primarily growth in funding for pre-K education, K-12 education, technical education and other higher education. Medicaid is growing at an even faster rate, though Deal has little control there except, thanks to a Supreme Court 2012 decision, not to radically expand it.

The total of all the discretionary fiscal changes touted by Deal were hardly significant as a percentage of the overall budget, less than 5 percent. Most everything else except mandatory baseline Medicaid expansion remained largely the same. Eighty percent of Deal’s increases go to education.

Jason Carter’s Democratic response to Deal’s address was just as telling. He seemed to agree that Deal was right to increase only education, and went one step further, proposing a “trust fund for education that will keep the politicians from raiding it to pay for other things.” Carter’s point was that, when tax revenues went down post-2008, Deal should have raided everything else so as not to have cut education pro rata like other sectors.

Carter, like Deal and Barge, knows perfectly well that it’s politically wise to keep the education establishment happy, because it’s bigger and more politically savvy than all the lesser governmental bureaucracies put together. Keeping the education establishment happy is an easier project when revenues are up, as they’re projected to be in 2014.

Nonetheless, the script is largely written no matter who is governor. Don’t mess with that education money, even if results are poor. And it’s never enough. The poorer the results, the more money is demanded.

So Georgia’s gubernatorial candidates are falling all over themselves to appease the education establishment, and we’re off to a predictable victory for the education bureaucracies -- which have been smartly, adroitly railing about teacher furlough days that were “necessitated” by previous recession-related cuts in state funding.

Of course, if our kids were all that important, the local school boards could have kept the schools open by laying off administrators and weak teachers and diverting cash from snappy buildings and tech bling. But heaven forbid that the education establishment should take a hit. It’s politically smarter to hold the kids’ interests hostage until the public coughs up more cash.

As a higher-ed teacher myself with several kids who’ve attended public schools, I find that appalling. Our kids and fine teachers warrant ironclad support. The public school political establishment does not.

Meanwhile, no governor is well positioned to drill down to improve education. Local school boards are.

Let’s encourage local boards to more thoughtfully and courageously deploy the funds they’re entrusted with. That means keeping the doors open, rewarding teachers who can best help lead students to success (separating teachers who cannot), and providing ample but strategic support for materials that serve the real mission’s interests, starting with paper, pencils, erasers, books and supplies.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University law school.

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