Published on
The Boston Globe

Shovel-Ready Stimulus Buries Schools

Shovel This, kids. Last weekend, Senate Democrats, in trying to get a filibuster-proof number of Republicans on board with the stimulus bill, allowed tens of billions of dollars to be slashed from education. It made you forget who won the election.

Republican Senator John McCain, so persuasive with his economic plans during the presidential campaign that he lost to Barack Obama 365 electoral votes to 173, howled that stimulus spending was at the point of "generational theft." In the House, Republican Mike Pence of Indiana said, "The center of this stimulus bill is massive, unaccountable government spending and the American people are tired of it."

Wait a minute. What the American people were tired of back in November was the massive spending on Iraq, and the unaccountability of such entities as former Vice President Dick Cheney's Halliburton, and other overcharging no-bid military, terrorism, and disaster contractors. As Iraq stole a tragic portion of the next generation, Big Oil lurked in the background racking up record profits, with even less accountability.

One of the most chronic aspects of the Bush years was the underfunding of education, most notably the halfway spending by Republicans of their own pet project, No Child Left Behind. This was all supposed to change under Obama. But the so-called Democratic majority in the Senate has not yet gotten the memo from the voters to stand up for the kids.

The Senate version of the stimulus plan had $40 billion less for state aid than the House bill, to account for current or looming school cuts. The Senate had $2 billion less in Pell college grants, $1 billion less for Head Start, and $16 billion less in school construction aid.

Democrats and the administration loudly lamented the cuts. White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers said, "There are crucial areas, support for higher education, that are things that are in the House bill that are very, very important to the president." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "Education is fundamental to everything we are trying to do. These cuts are very dangerous. The House package was put together very carefully. I am very much opposed to the cuts proposed in the Senate."

Mere lament was supposed to be history last Nov. 4. The Democrats are also being squeezed by the rhetoric of expediency, with Obama constantly saying that the more we wait to do anything, the more we face a "catastrophe." A catastrophe may indeed be looming, but it does not have to mean capitulation to the old way of making sure tax cuts in the stimulus come before aid to education and tax breaks to buy cars come before building schools (which Senate Democrats sponsored), particularly as education for public school children keeps slipping behind the rest of the developed world.

But when will the old way give way to the new? That is unclear.

On one hand, Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland asserted Sunday on FOX News that the $16 billion for school construction is quite "shovel-ready" as it, of course, "puts people back to work." But then expediency kicked in. He added, "There's a lot we think in the House bill we should have in the final package. Having said that, we are not in the business of drawing lines in the sand, because we believe the overriding priority right now is to get something done."

That seems a little soft, given that Pelosi said the Senate cuts "do violence to what we are trying to do for the future."

The Republicans may be doing violence, but the Democrats have to stop doing themselves in. Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota bluntly said, "Education took a big hit here."

That tells you the change that Obama promised may not be coming in the stimulus, unless he pulls out his bully pulpit club. Obama said over the weekend, "Let's do whatever it takes to keep the promises of America alive in our time." But as of this moment, the kids are being told they are not shovel-ready. The Senate, in the negotiations of expediency, has yet to dig deep for them.

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Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson

Journalist Derrick Z. Jackson, a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, a 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is co-author of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock (2015). He can be reached at

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