Sunday, February 15, 2004

Political Survey Part 6
Size of Government, and Education

This is part six of my response to Representative Nick Smith's survey of his constituency.  The first one contained comments about the methodology of the survey.  Since then, I have been looking at one or two questions at a time, not just responding to the limited choices given, but providing a more detailed response along with the rationale.  And throwing in a little political commentary. 

Size of Government

The federal government spending has grown by 27 percent over the last two years. Less than half of that was increased spending on defense and homeland security after September 11. Domestic spending outside these areas has been growing two to three times as fast as inflation.

10. What is your view on the size of the federal government?
Significant problems facing America dictate increases in the size and activity of government.
The size of government is about right. Government spending should grow at about the same rate as inflation.
The federal government is trying to do too much. It should be reduced in size and activity and should focus on the basic responsibilities of security, law and order, regulation of interstate commerce, and international affairs.

CVN-76,  USS Ronald ReaganThis question presupposes the premise that the size of government is proportional to federal government spending, which is not the case.  For example, this is true with defense spending: the most recent Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, cost more that 4 billion dollars to build, and costs an additional 2.3 billion per year to operate.  This expense does not increase the size of the government; but obviously, it contributes to the spending.  So, size and budget are really two separate issues. 

What is more important to me, is not the size of government or the amount of the budget, but the question, what am I USS Ronald Reagan under constructiongetting for my money?  If taxes go up, but roads are better, I get to work faster, and my car lasts longer, the extra taxes might be a good value for me.  It is more germane to examine the efficiency and appropriateness of each component.   In discussing this with my family, we decided that it is not possible to make a judgment about the size of government (or its budget) without looking at each item or program and assessing the merits of each component.  Mr. Smith raises a point, that domestic spending has increased at a rate greater than inflation.  It probably is true that this is a problem,  if sustained.  It clearly is a problem if it results in an ongoing deficit.  There may be specifics instances where exceptions are appropriate, such as the second World War.  Perhaps running a deficit would be reasonable in the short run, if it would fix Social Security and Medicare, and reasonably could be expected to result is great cost savings in the future. 

To address the specific responses possible in this survey question, taking the position that "Significant problems facing America dictate increases in the size and activity of government" is problematical, because life is such that there always will seem to be significant problems that pose an exceptional circumstance justifying greater spending.  In peacetime, health care seems to be a pressing issue; in wartime, it seems less urgent.  I think it is an open question whether the war on terrorism can be viewed as an exceptional circumstance.  That is because we do not know whether it will eventually cool off, or drag on for decades.  If it is going to go on for decades, as the Cold War did, it cannot be treated as an exception. 

The response, "The size of government is about right. Government spending should grow at about the same rate as inflation," really should be broken down into two separate questions.  I've already addressed the size issue.  The rate of growth clearly has to be limited in some way.  Limiting it to the rate of inflation may be difficult to put into practice, since the budget is passed for a given year before the rate of inflation for that year is known.  But using the concept of tying budget growth to inflation could promote fiscal discipline, and it has the virtue of being somewhat objective.  The problem I would anticipate, though, is that this approach would introduce even more political pressure into Treasury's process of calculating the rate of inflation.  For this to work, then, it also would be necessary to establish a priori  the method of calculating the rate of inflation. 

The response, "The federal government is trying to do too much. It should be reduced in size and activity and should focus on the basic responsibilities of security, law and order, regulation of interstate commerce, and international affairs," also should be broken down into separate issues.  It is one thing to say that the government is trying to do too much; it is another thing to specify what constitutes the basic responsibilities of federal government.  If you start from the premise that we have a government "of the people, by the people, for the people," it follows that the basic responsibilities of government are whatever "the people" say it is. The people seem to have said (judging intent from behavior) that they want the government to provide certain infrastructure, a minimal guaranteed retirement system, and health care, among other things. 

It would make sense for each branch of government to review, from time to time, the spending and priorities of each of its operational components, to see if economizing is possible and desirable.  I would advocate for doing this on a yearly basis.  But I would caution against making too many changes too quickly.   Change always is costly, and it happens all to often that the costs of rapid change offset or even exceed whatever cost savings might have been gained by the change. 


Children need the best possible education to succeed in an increasingly competitive job market. There has been a dramatic increase in the federal government's financial support for K-12 education since 1996, going from about $24 billion to $49 billion per year. Student performance, however, has not improved significantly in international comparisons.

11. Our priority to improve education should be:
Increased federal funding and control over local schools.
Increased federal funding with control remaining at the state and local level.
Maintain current funding and control levels.
Reduced federal funding and control.

12. Should there be increased choice and greater competition between schools?
Yes. Competition between public and private schools through use of vouchers.
Yes. Competition between public schools and charter schools.
No. Greater competition isn't necessary.

This is very difficult to assess, since there are many sources of funding for K-12 education.   In order to answer this, it would be necessary for me to know what has happened to the total amount spent from all sources, not just the amount spent by the federal government.  The statement about student performance, as compared to other countries, seems out of place.  The mission of K-12 education is not so we can win trophies in international competition.  The role of education is to provide for an informed citizenry, enhance the economy, improve health outcomes, and generally to facilitate the pursuit of happiness.  If education is failing, the proof of that failure is in the degree to which the citizens are not sufficiently informed to make good decisions in the voting booth; there are people with inadequate training with which to stay employed; serious public health problems are not attended to; and people are best with discontent. 

I think educational funding should be increased again, although not at the federal level.  There are serious infrastructure problems in many schools.  This will have to be corrected sooner or later, and it will be cheaper to do it sooner.  I do not see any reason to increase control of school at the federal level.  I do not support the current efforts to use standardized test scores to make funding decisions, so in that regard, I would want the federal government to make a graceful exit.  So I guess I would support reduced federal control. 

The voucher/charter school question keeps coming back, and probably will never go away.  I have serious concerns about charter schools.  If a charter school captures a significant market share (here, our kids are market commodities) and fails, the school will be held accountable, and could be closed.  (Note that not all states have annual reporting requirements, or specific criteria for renewing the charter; in those states, accountability is a question mark.  Michigan does have appropriate accountability)  But if a charter school fails, the money spent does not come back to the taxpayers, unless there is provable fraud and the money can be recovered.  The kids get the short end of the stick, and there is nothing anyone can do about that.  And, in the meantime, the public school has had to lay people off, and it could be hard to get the public school back up to speed.  There have been some significant failures:

Angell Hall in Ann Arbor, Michigan
In 1999-2000 80% of children in Texas public schools passed the Texas academic achievement tests, and only 37% of charter school students passed the same test. (The Dallas Morning News, May 19, 2001)

HARRISBURG (April 23) -- Auditor General Robert P. Casey Jr. has released an audit which found that the Thurgood Marshall Academy Charter School, Allegheny County, overspent its budget by more than $140,000 in the 1999-2000 school year. The audit's 13 findings and observations also revealed that the school failed to make required contributions to employees' retirement accounts, entered into inappropriate business transactions that resulted in overpayments of nearly $250,000, and made numerous reporting and record-keeping errors. During the course of the audit, the School District of the Borough of Wilkinsburg, which originally approved the charter school, voted to close the school. It closed in January 2002.
Inscription on Angell Hall (words from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787): "Religion, Morality, and Knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." (photo from Univ. of Michigan Planner's Office)

Of course, there have been failures in publics schools, too.  At this point, it is not clear that charter schools are going to solve the problems that they were created to solve.  For these reasons (risk of failure, risk of fraud) I think we need to proceed slowly and cautiously with the charter school movement.  I think that with enough care, the increased competition could be a good thing.  We need to go slow and find some objective, non-ideological way of assessing the results. 

Regarding the issuance of vouchers to private schools, I think it's a bad idea.  The risk of fraud or unwise use of public funds is too great.  The application of public funds should be monitored by elected officials.  Having the government monitor private school curricula is a bad idea, except in a distant, general way to ensure that students are getting an adequate education. 

This is the end of my responses to the questions in Nick Smith's survey of his constituents in the Michigan 7th Congressional District.  I will pull the parts together and develop a summary statement later.
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