The Paul Ryan pick obviously matters politically and on substance. But specifically for education does it matter much? Some people seem to think so, for instance the usually cautious Rick Hess is all excited about the Paul Ryan VP pick (and apparently getting paid a bonus for each time he uses the phrase “serious”) and thinks it portends big news for education. OK, Paul Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee, so by definition proposals he puts out are “serious” in a way that the latest Ron Paul missive is not. But serious and workable or likely to happen are two different things.
Here are four reasons why Ryan on the ticket matters little for education:
1) This was a big picture political pick not an education one. It’s a tacit admission by the Romney campaign that although the election is tight things are not going their way and they needed to shake things up and change the argument to a discussion about hard fiscal choices. Despite all the certitude, it might work. Too soon to tell. But one thing is for certain, it was a pick with little to do with education. There were others under consideration with stronger education credentials. You want to make a point on reform there is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. About public sector reform? New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. And besides, would any campaign advisor argue that an education pick would be a game-changer in this election (or almost any other national contest)?
2) The big spending action in the budget fight is entitlements not education. This visualization of the budget from The New York Times shows why. Sure, we’ll hear rhetoric about cuts to education and so forth but the big picture fiscal problem is driven by two primary issues that will be the underlying focus of this fall’s debate: Entitlement spending and revenue (taxes). It’s also worth nothing that the mismatch between revenue and spending and the growth of entitlements is the bigger threat to education spending (and other discretionary domestic spending) right now over the long term. One thing Ryan will likely do is take that conversation to a level of specifics that’s been lacking, that’s hardly bad, there are big choices facing the country. But the math (political math and actual numbers) simply doesn’t support the idea that there is not a revenue component here, too, and that will impact education in any deal.
3) Despite any of that, Conservatives, too, have a poor record of fiscal restraint or shrinking government anyway. Remember, government grew under President Reagan as well as more recently under President Bush. You don’t hear about that part of the Reagan myth (although Ron Paul did raise it during the Republican debate at the Reagan Library….reaction…clunk!). Contemporaneously Margaret Thatcher, too, failed to put a dent in the public sector. There are plenty of reasons for that but if you’re going to lose sleep you probably should over the idea that politicians will do little or nothing and aggravate an untenable situation not that they will take a budget axe to education spending. Overall, for decades the (upward) trajectory of education spending was really threatened only by the fiscal crisis of the past few years – and even that is ebbing. And at the federal level spending grew during the downturn as a part of a stimulus effort. There are a bunch of reasons for that – built in cost escalators, opaqueness, politics, special interests – but it’s the unmistakable trend. Perhaps circumstances are perceived to be dire enough now that things will be different should Romney and Ryan win in November, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
4) There is still a Senate. Even if Romney wins, barring a Republican landslide in November, budgets will still be negotiated not decreed and that puts dampers on a lot of this, and again, education isn’t where the big dollars are.