April 30, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Health care should not dictate school funds


The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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“Every time my share of Medicaid goes up, it takes money directly out of my public school appropriations,” said the governor of Idaho. “It’s the only place we can get the money from.”

Butch Otter at the end of the latest legislative session? Nope. Cecil Andrus in 1993. Here are the thoughts of couple of other governors back then:

Evan Bayh, Indiana: “Health care is destroying state government.”

Pete Wilson, California: “It changes the character of what I can do as governor.”

David Shribman, then a columnist for the Boston Globe, conveyed those comments back in 1993, adding: “Decades from now, historians will place the big transition at fiscal 1993, when, for the first time, states spent more on Medicaid than on higher education.”

States now collectively spend more on Medicaid (including the federal match) than they do on K-12 education, according to a 2012 report from the National Association of State Budget Officers. Medicare is eroding the federal budget, too. It’s no coincidence that 1993 was when President Bill Clinton took a stab at reforming health care, not just because he felt it was a moral obligation, but because he had also been a governor who had dealt with the impact of medical inflation.

This may seem a strange introduction to the topic of early childhood education, but the impact of rising health care costs has a direct bearing on the ability of government to finance other items. Advocates for increased government spending on any issue should board the bandwagon to control health care costs, because that’s where the money is. Obamacare widened access, but the job won’t be done until costs are addressed.

The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University has just rung an alarm bell, noting that state funding for pre-kindergarten programs has dropped to its lowest level in a decade. However, state budgets themselves have not shrunk. So where’s the money going? To health care. If per capita spending on health care in the United States matched that of European nations, we’d have plenty of money to expand early education programs, which, in turn, would alleviate long-term spending on criminal justice and prisons.

Dr. Kathleen McCartney, the soon-to-be-departing dean of the Harvard School of Graduate Education and a national expert on early education, delivered a compelling speech last week as part of Whitworth University’s Leadership Forum. Every dollar spent on pre-kindergarten programs saves $4 down the road, she noted, because enrollees are more apt to become productive citizens and less apt to be a drain on society.

However, gaining those upfront dollars has proven to be very difficult, as the Rutgers report shows. The best way to secure long-term funding is to cut off the spending spigot elsewhere. That means a serious effort to rein in health care costs. Education advocates may think their issue resides in a separate silo, but government budget writers do not. Health care funding comes from somewhere, and increasingly that “somewhere” has been education’s hide. That was true 20 years ago, and it’s still true today.

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