THE BLOG
02/03/2011 04:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Smarter Budget Ax

We're hearing a lot these days about tackling the federal budget deficit by instituting across-the-board cuts, rolling back federal spending to FY08 levels, consolidating programs, and banning all Congressional earmarks. Nearly everyone acknowledges that the current economic reality calls for extraordinary fiscal discipline. Duplicative or ineffective programs should be eliminated at all levels of government. In the education field alone, there's plenty of room for improving how we spend public dollars at the local, state, and federal level.

However, I'm growing increasingly concerned about the unintended damage that could result from well-meaning attempts to put our fiscal house in order. At precisely the time when we should be carefully examining each program for its return on investment, there's a steady drumbeat for indiscriminate and far-reaching cuts that don't account for some of the most critical factors in determining how we should spend scarce resources.

We can't afford to allow our zealousness for fiscal responsibility to wipe out programs that actually generate additional dollars that wouldn't otherwise exist. There are countless examples of government programs in public education that require recipients of government funds to generate new money or in-kind resources. In some cases the government's share of the costs for such programs may only be 50%. Government spending that creates this type of leverage should be among the last dollars we consider cutting.

There are also plenty of programs funded by government agencies that result in actual cost savings to taxpayers both in the near-and long-term. Programs that make sure young people graduate from high school and college, prevent juvenile delinquency, and provide critical preschool, afterschool, and child care services for working families are only a few examples. Surely, we can agree that it doesn't make sense to stop spending a few thousand extra dollars per year on services for our most vulnerable kids in order to help ensure that taxpayers don't end up supporting these same children for the rest of their lives.

Lastly, the actual performance and impact of government spending should guide what programs get cut. The current economic crisis should be calling us to spend more wisely, not just simply to spend less. Rather than percentage-based reductions, we should be asking the tough questions about what really works, what investments prevent long-term dependency on government support, what types of educational and developmental opportunities do young people truly need to avoid negative outcomes in the future, and what spending is truly essential for us to maintain our standing in the world.

Debating the answers to the above questions is contentious, but could result in the best possible government investments. Contrary to the current rhetoric, not all government spending is wasteful. Similarly, not all federal programs called earmarks should be banned. In the case of our current budget battles, we need more scalpels than we need axes. Often the most simple, comprehensible message like "across the board cuts" ends up doing more harm than good.