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Spending to Close Education Gap Pays for Itself. Will GOP's Magic Math Model Ignore That One Too?

02/09/2015 03:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

Governador Jaques Wagner inaugura Centro de Educação Cientifica de Serrinha.....Foto: Manu Dias/AGECOM

To what GOP magic math model am I referring? Something called "dynamic scoring." You may be asking yourself what could be wrong with something that's dynamic. The answer is simple: it's bunk. I recently explored how the new Republican-led House of Representatives implemented dynamic scoring as a way of making, say, a $1 trillion tax cut for the wealthy look like it costs a lot less because those tax cuts will supposedly create growth and increase tax revenues going forward. You know, like they did in Kansas.

I asked whether this dynamic scoring model would recognize that, according to a well-respected study, spending on Medicaid for kids increases tax revenues down the road and thus should be scored as costing less than it would under traditional budget scoring methods, just as the GOP wants to do with its tax proposals. This week we've got another study. It quantifies the long-term return on dollars spent to close the gap in educational achievement between rich and poor students. But Republicans want to use dynamic scoring only on tax cuts for the rich, something former Reagan and G.H.W. Bush economic adviser Bruce Bartlett called "smoke and mirrors" designed "to institutionalize Republican ideology into the budget process." In fact, we're already seeing it.

On education spending, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth's study found:

Improving the education of future workers accelerates economic growth and can promote more equal opportunity over the long run. The result: stronger, more broadly shared economic growth, which in turn raises national income and increases government revenue, providing the means by which to invest in improving our economic future.

The study dug into the numbers, examining the straightforward increase in economic growth and in tax revenues--without changing tax rates--that would result from "raising the educational achievement of children from the bottom three quarters of families who are most socioeconomically disadvantaged to more closely match those of children born into the top quarter of families." The long and short of it is this: if we spend money and close or eliminate the gap, we should get it back over time, and the more we achieve on that front, the bigger the return.

Washington Center for Equitable Growth | The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Improving U.S. Educational Outcomes

As a progressive, it's even more important to note that in addition to the fact that investing this money is a smart move from a long-term budgetary perspective, it's also a moral imperative. Our country has witnessed startling growth in income inequality since the 1970s as gains in wealth have been increasingly concentrated at the very top levels while the large majority of Americans has fallen behind. This inequality derives to a good degree from a corresponding inequality in educational achievement.

Compared with other wealthy industrialized countries, we fail miserably in terms of educational (and thus economic) mobility. Looking at people who are between the ages of 25 and 34, only 5 percent of Americans reached a higher level of education than their parents. Among our peer countries, the figure is 25 percent, five times higher than ours. That's an outrage, and it is a direct result of our failure to ensure that all American children, rich or poor, receive a good education. It is a moral imperative that we fix this disparity.

But now let's return to the politics of this issue, because closing the education gap and improving student performance in a meaningful way requires government action on a number of fronts, the most important of which is budgetary. Budgets are both moral and political documents--moral in that they demonstrate what we value in the most direct terms, and political in that they have to garner enough support from elected officials to be enacted.

In the first week of its new session, the Republican House made a decision that has both moral and political implications. It decided to score its budget proposals in a way that ignores the potential return on investments we might make in infrastructure, educating our children, or providing them health care, while enshrining "smoke and mirrors" estimates of the potential return on tax cuts that benefit their base, the people George W. Bush once called "the haves and the have mores."

It would be one thing if Republicans applied dynamic scoring consistently, both to proposals that would reduce revenue and those that would increase spending. Either we should take into account estimates of the long-term effect of both kinds of proposals on our economy and what our government collects in taxes, or of neither. Doing one and not the other is, as Bartlett pointed out, nothing more than "cook[ing] the books." And let's not forget why Republicans want to cook the books. This ruse is designed to mask the cost of immoral policies that would take from those who have little and give to those who have plenty.

As the Republicans put forth their dynamically scored budget plans, their proposals on taxes and spending, we should all be watching very carefully exactly how the media reports them. Will they simply parrot the GOP's voodoo numbers that show tax cuts pay for themselves while money spent directly on improving people's lives are just dollars spent with no return? Will they let Republicans get away with lying, or will journalists call them out and tell the truth? I guess we'll see, won't we.