Commentary: Bailout education not automakers

Alberto Carvalho and James Notter employed a bit of rhetorical artifice. They asked Washington for a federal bailout. Their message was aimed at Tallahassee.

Local school superintendents have been saying for months now that their districts have been devastated by state policy makers. But the superintendents of Florida's two largest school districts described themselves as desperate as any Detroit auto CEO or Wall Street banker. First Carvalho, then Notter, suggested that their districts faced an economic catastrophe as worthy of federal rescue as investment banks or car manufacturers. Their novel reasoning flashed through the national media and reverberated through the Internet.

It's fanciful stuff, of course, asking for special bailout money for just two of the nation's 16,850 public school districts. It doesn't help that the Miami-Dade and Broward districts happened to be in Florida. Members of Congress from the 48 states that spend more per student than Florida might balk at helping out schools in a state that won't help itself.

Probably, the supers' real intent was to heap public shame on a governor and Legislature that treats public education as an expensive nuisance. But just because a school bailout seems unlikely doesn't make it any less intriguing. Particularly when you compare the economic return American taxpayers got for their $700 billion bank bailout to the bang for the buck from the $827 billion we spend a year on education – that's k-through-college, public and private schools, the whole kaboodle.

Robert Reich, the Harvard economist and former secretary of labor, warned last month that "Our preoccupation with the immediate crisis of financial capital is causing us to overlook the bigger crisis in America's human capital. While we commit hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street, we're slashing our outlays for public education."

As a result, Reich said, "Teachers are being laid off and new hiring frozen, after-school programs cut, so called 'noncritical' subjects like history eliminated, schools closed and tuitions hiked at state colleges and universities."

Reich was talking about a national trend but his words offered a perfect description of the state of education in Florida.

Perhaps Carvalho and Notter's notion of an education bailout should be writ large – a national "cash injection" for schools that would provide an economic jolt across 16,850 communities, not just New York and Detroit.

Hire more teachers, whose starting pay in the United States averages about $26,000. They've got no choice but to pump the money right back into economy. They've got to eat.

Build schools. Fund scholarships. Lower college tuition. We've got 76 million students who'd make sounder investments than underwriting so many new Fords and Chevys that no one wants to buy.

Coax students out of high school and get them a college degree, and, according to a U.S. Census bureau study entitled "The Big Payoff", their average annual income jumps by $29,000 a year. Forty percent of that income comes back to government as taxes.

I doubt that taxpayers will enjoy that kind of return from their bailout of AIG.

Forget Bernanke and Paulson. Carvalho and Notter are on to something.