A debate with some actual substance has broken out over the stimulus bill. Not the phony contraceptive debate or the phantom CBO report debate, but rather a real debate about short term spending relative to long term investments. On the one hand the point of the stimulus is to create or save jobs as quickly as possible, which means spending money quickly to try to head-off the worsening economic situation. On the other hand, when we’re on the cusp of again spending upwards of a trillion dollars it’s worth asking whether the dollars could be leveraged more effectively against future challenges the nation faces. Infrastructure is not surprisingly emerging as a flash point here because the trade-offs are pretty clear. There are some implications there for education. But, interestingly, again proving itself to be either a cheap date or missing a long-view the education community hasn’t really said much about how this school construction money could be used to leverage more funding down the road so the debate is happening more around other components of the bill.
There is a general consensus that school facilities are a problem in a lot of communities and most in the education community are excited about the proposed spending on school construction (and even more excited if it means that public charter schools get frozen out as apparently is happening in the Senate!). And school construction is an efficient way to create and save jobs.
But everyone seems to be forgetting that it’s been a decade-plus effort to get real funding for school construction (in fact a half-century effort if you want to go back to when President Eisenhower first proposed federal spending for facilities). So, with this much money on the table should some of it be held back to create a longer-term and more permanent financing system for school construction? For instance, you could give some grants now, for immediate or “shovel ready” projects, but hold some back to create state or regional infrastructure banks for long-term support for building and renovating education facilities, including charters and other non-traditional approaches. Under the current proposal education advocates will be back hat in hand for more money as soon as this is spent and without a real hook in federal policy.
Of course, the appropriators are understandably concerned that if they allow programs into the bill that are not current law it will create more targets for the Republicans, who are clearly feeling around for weak points to push on in the public debate. And many economists are saying spend as fast as you can now given the gravity of the situation and worry about later later. So this is one where there are valid viewpoints on all sides but it’s a conversation worth having. This is a big opportunity.