Sunday’s Super Bowl showed that the reverse is still a pretty good play in football and Monday’s budget shows it is also a play that can be used in politics. The central theme of the President’s 2000 campaign was “compassionate conservatism,” and the principal evidence that this was more than a meaningless phrase calculated to turn swing was candidate Bush’s commitment to “leave no child behind.”
That theme resonated in a nation growing increasingly worried about how the next generation will fare in a world where global competition seems increasingly to award those who are well prepared for the workplace and punish those who are not. Most Americans also realize that millions of young people each year are left behind by an education system that has too many kids in most classroom and too few fully qualified teachers in those classrooms.
Progress clearly had been made during the Clinton administration in terms of getting more federal dollars into the hands of local school boards so that additional teachers could be hired in order to reduce class size and so that school systems could better compete with other employers in offering prospective teachers better employment packages.
The Bush slogan of “leave no child behind” seemed to imply that he recognized an urgency to the problem that surpassed the commitment of both Clinton and Bush’s 2000 opponent, Al Gore.
Bush was elected in November of 2000 and a month later President Clinton signed into law the 2001 Appropriation for the Department of Education, which provided the Department of Education with $42.2 billion. That amounts to an expenditure of about $169 for each man, woman and child in the country after adjusting for inflation.
When President Bush offered his Fiscal Year 2002 budget a few months after the inaugural it provided a surprisingly small increase for education—smaller than the rate of increase during the previous five years. Using the President’s rhetorical commitment to “leave no child behind,” education supporters in the Congress were able to push Department of Education funding up to $49.3 billion in the final appropriation measure adopted for Fiscal Year 2002. That placed federal education spending at $194 per person after adjusting for inflation.
In January of 2003 the President signed the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which authorized a more than 50 percent increase in federal assistance to local schools over the course of the next five years. The budget which he presented to Congress a few weeks later funded only part of that increase, but the direction was still upward and real per capita federal spending for education increased to almost $200 in the Fiscal Year 2003 budget. But that is where it stopped. Fiscal 2004 was essentially flat and since then education funding has been in a nosedive.
During fiscal 2005 real per capita spending on education dropped to $197. The bill that the President signed in December cut per capita spending to $184—$10 a year less than when the “No Child Left Behind” law was enacted.
But the “reverse” was not complete until this morning, when the President sent Congress his fiscal 2007 budget request. The $54.4 billion that the President this morning asked the Congress to appropriate for the Department of Education for the coming year is $2 billion below the level available for the current year. Real per capita spending under that budget will plummet to $165, or $3 less than the level contained in the appropriation bill signed by President Clinton a few weeks before Bush was sworn into office.
The Bush team will no doubt argue that money can’t fix everything—that there are issues in education that won’t go away no matter how much money you throw at them. That may well be true, but it is also true that you can’t expect class sizes to go anywhere but up and you can’t expect teacher quality to go anywhere but down if you reduce the funds available to local school districts. The burden of the increased testing now mandated by the federal government simply adds to the downward financial pressure.
Even more distressing is the fact that the new Bush budget appears to plan for continued cuts in federal support of local schools for the foreseeable future. All of the increased support of local schools achieved during the Clinton administration (in real per capita spending by the Department of Education) may well be eliminated in the final two budgets of the Bush administration—the administration that used education as a measure of its compassion.
This is necessary to offset a tiny fraction of the debt being created by tax cuts focused on the most well-to-do in our society. The “reverse” not only works for the Pittsburgh Steelers but the Washington Stealers as well.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
 The numbers used in this analysis are discretionary budget authority appropriated to the Education Department in annual appropriation bills. This does not track with amounts appropriated by fiscal year since in a number of years during this period the Congress appropriated in a single piece of legislation, funds to be available to the Department for two separate fiscal years but for use in the same school year. This use of multiple fiscal years in a single appropriation was a device used to circumvent the spending targets in the Budget Resolution and increase overall funding for education. The numbers in this analysis correct for that anomaly and provide a more accurate picture of the year to year change in the flow of education dollars.