In the Arena

Earmark Idiocy

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Teach for America, the brilliant program that has sent tens of thousands of elite college graduates to work in the poorest, toughest schools, is about to get stiffed by the federal government. “We are, technically, an earmark,” Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, told me this morning. “I’m not sure exactly why we’re considered an earmark, but we are and all of our federal funding–$18 million–is at stake.”

Hmm. I’d assumed that an earmark is a one-off, piddly program some Congressperson wants for his or her district–the glockenspiel hall of fame, or whatever. These don’t amount to very much cash–and a great many of them are entirely worthwhile: a new wing for the local hospital, a new lab at the state university–but John McCain and others have had a great deal of fun over the years ridiculing the bridges to nowhere and the grants for the study of crab sexuality. This year, in the full-blown heat of our deficit-cutting passion, both Congress and the President have decided to swear off them.

But Kopp’s question deserves an answer. Why on earth is a successful program that exists in 31 states, and is authorized by name in the federal higher education act since 2007, considered an earmark? It took me several phone calls to Senate staffers to find out. Since Senate staffers don’t like to be quoted by name, here are some of the initial responses:

“It’s ridiculous.”

“There are various definitions of what’s considered an earmark, depending on the committee in question.”

“I can’t believe we’re in this situation. Teach For America has bipartisan support.”

And, “I really don’t know why, but it’s ridiculous.”

Finally, a Senate staff education expert told me: “In education funding, an earmark is anything that isn’t granted by federal formula [like Title I money to poor districts] or a contract determined by competitive bidding. There are about a dozen national programs that are about to be cut from the education appropriations bill this year, including Teach for America, because they are technically considered earmarks. We’re trying to get the definition changed.”

In the current deficit cutting mania, I’m sure there are other such horror stories–and a few triumphs, like today’s House vote not to fund an alternative engine for the F-35 fighter. But make no mistake, we’re dealing with a mania here and one whose time isn’t quite ripe: the jobs that John Boehner and Company want to eliminate number in the hundreds of thousands–perhaps as many as a million, when collateral job damage is considered. If the Republicans succeed in this too quickly, we may be tossed back into recession. In the process, we may also destroy or do serious damage to dozens of federal programs, like Teach for America, that actually work (the $18 million represents 10% of TFA’s annual budget, which isn’t fatal, but does mean hundreds of fewer teachers per year going into the schools where most people don’t want to teach; Kopp estimates that it will mean about a 20% cut in her approximately 5000 teachers in 2012).

Again, budget cutting is fine if it can be done equitably–especially long-term reforms to the big-ticket entitlement programs. I’m not sure, for example, that fee-for-service medicine will be viable option for Medicare much longer (most of the rest of us belong to hmos and preferred provider groups). But budget hatcheting is a disaster that will further weaken the country at a moment when we’re not that strong.