Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chair of the House Budget Committee, offered up a budget proposal this week for fiscal year 2012 beginning in October that would cut discretionary government spending to below 2008 levels. This means a significant cut to federal kindergarten-through-12th-grade education funding is in his sights. His proposal does not include details about which nonsecurity programs would be affected, but based on previous House Republican plans, we can safely assume education would suffer cuts.
Lowering funding to levels previously proposed by Republicans would not provide the investment in education that is needed in order to improve student achievement and lay the necessary foundation for future economic growth. We need to invest more in education, not less, in order to create a system that is more equitable and that produces American students who are more competitive in the global marketplace for talent.
The American people get this. In nine different public opinion polls since January, the public has clearly expressed that it does not support cuts in education. In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans opposed cuts in education, opposition greater than any other area including Social Security, Medicare, and national defense. Similarly, when asked whether it was more important to reduce the deficit or prevent cuts in education, respondents to a recent CNN poll chose to preserve education by a margin of 75 percent to 25 percent.
And the American people are right to be worried about our education system. The United States suffers from persistent achievement gaps between groups of students defined by race or family income. And our students also rank well behind those in economically competitive countries on international tests. Racial and income achievement gaps run counter to America’s founding ideals of an equal and just society, and lower levels of achievement are also associated with poorer health, lower earnings, and higher levels of incarceration.
These achievement gaps have tremendous economic consequences. A recent McKinsey report estimates that closing the achievement gaps between 1983 and 1998 would have resulted in 2008 U.S. gross domestic product (our economy’s output of goods and services) that would have been significantly higher. The estimates of 2008 GDP gains in the report are $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher for closing the international gap, $310 billion to $525 billion higher for closing the racial gap, and $400 billion to $670 billion higher for closing the income gap. Continuing to tolerate these achievement gaps is tantamount to accepting a chronic, self-induced economic recession.
Education has already taken a hit in this year’s budget battle as an earlier continuing resolution cut almost $750 million from the Department of Education, excluding Pell Grants—the federal program for qualified low-income college students. These included cuts to, among other programs, the Striving Readers and Even Start literacy programs, small learning communities, and Teach for America. While President Obama’s budget wisely proposed consolidating some of these programs into new funding streams, the complete elimination of funding means fewer resources available to advance important education priorities.
In addition to cuts to K-12 education, the Ryan plan would also cut Pell Grants by returning them to pre-stimulus levels. This is a cut of more than $800 in each student’s maximum Pell Grant award, which would impact millions of young Americans who depend on critical financial assistance in order to attend college. With the average yearly cost of $7,605 per year for tuition and fees at a public four-year college, the cut in Pell Grants is about equal to the cost of an entire semester-long class per student. For students at a two-year college, the cut is almost a third of the tuition for a full-time student for a year. Cuts in financial aid mean that it takes students longer to complete their degrees, which delays them from entering the workforce.
The cuts in education that Ryan proposes are shortsighted and harmful for a number of reasons. First of all, continued investment in education is critical in order to put our economy on the path to sustained growth. Second, a reduction in federal support would take resources away from critically important programs at a time when states are also making significant cuts to education. Third, federal education programs provide more equitable resources for students who need it most—without federal support, many hard-fought gains would erode for children living in poverty.
To achieve desired levels of economic growth and live up to our founding ideals, the United States must increase the overall level of achievement of students in the K-12 education system and close both international achievement gaps and the persistent achievement gaps between groups of American children defined by ethnicity or family income. The Ryan budget plan would take us a huge step in the wrong direction.
Diana Epstein is a Senior Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.