Eight years ago, President Bush entered office with some bipartisan credibility on education, rightfully proclaiming that schoolchildren suffer from the soft bigotry of low expectations. He and the Republicans quickly discredited themselves with low federal funding for reform. So long was Washington anesthetized that the Democrats still seemed in a coma this week as Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the three moderates the Democrats desperately needed for the stimulus bill, stripped more than $40 billion in school construction and general aid to schools.
"We hung tough," Collins said.
This hanging tough by stringing up public education finally stirred some Democrats into at least playing defense on the stimulus. After all, if so-called Republican moderates had such continued low expectations for education, then you know what the rest of that party was thinking. Despite all the up-front concessions from the Democrats, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky moaned, "This bill has only gotten worse. In my view, and in the view of my Republican colleagues, this is not the smart approach."
Tired of the Republican approach and signaling that Obama's outreach was resulting in more capitulation than compromise, Representative Henry Waxman, the Democrat from California, said of Snowe, Collins, and Specter, "It's been their way or nothing. We're losing a lot of the jobs that the president wanted because of it." Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said, "I think our side gave in too much in order to appease a few people." Harkin later elaborated, "They took a lot of stuff out of education. They took it out of health, school construction, and they put it more into tax issues." Massachusetts Representatives Ed Markey, Barney Frank, and Jim McGovern wrote a letter saying they were "shocked" that the Senate slashed school construction while adding more money for nuclear weapons.
Most important, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said enough was enough. Saying the cuts to education "do violence to the future," the New York Times wrote that she "lit into Phil Schiliro, chief congressional lobbyist for the Obama administration and a former senior Capitol Hill aide, and had words for Rahm Emanuel, her former lieutenant, who is now President Obama's chief of staff." The Associated Press quoted her as saying, "We had to make sure the investment in education" was in the bill.
The Democrats could not get back a separate line item for new school construction. The best they could do is work with the state stabilization fund. The House originally proposed $79 billion. The Senate, cowed by Collins, Snowe, and Specter, had slashed it to $39 billion. The final agreement called for $54 billion, out of which $40.6 billion would go to local school districts. Out of the $40.6 billion, up to $10 billion could be used for school repairs. This, of course, was better than the shutout by the Senate. But no one knows what "up to $10 billion" really means, since the money comes out of the same pot that mayors and school superintendents need to fill other budget gaps and avoid layoffs.
Pelosi hailed the compromise as "historic and transformational." It was a start, but let's not get hysterical about transformation, when education advocates had to fight so hard for crumbling schools while Congress granted collapsing General Motors an 11th-hour, $3.2 billion tax break, and purchases of new cars can avail themselves of $5 billion of tax breaks.
In 1995, the General Accounting Office said that $112 billion was needed to renovate and replace the nation's crumbling schools. In 1997, the Republicans killed the mere $5 billion President Clinton proposed to repair them. With such complete neglect, the amount needed for repairs exploded to $266 billion by the time Bush took office, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Kansas State University. The need has stayed about the same ever since, and little in the federal stimulus package changes that.
Collins is proud of hanging tough. For America's schoolchildren, that means tough luck.