Votes in Congress this week to increase government spending on math and science education and research programs might seem as uncontroversial a political statement as renaming federal courthouses or post offices.
After all, both major parties generally backed the proposals in dueling technology-related agendas touted this week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a Senate Republican High Tech Task Force. President Bush also endorsed the ideas as part of his State of the Union address last year and continued to angle for increased research spending in next year's budget.
But beneath non-controversial political paeans to improving American competitiveness, a rift has formed over traditional lines: more government spending vs. fiscal restraint. Some Republicans are questioning whether the best way to ensure the nation stays ahead of India and China is to pour billions of taxpayer dollars (paid for by tax increases or deficit spending) into government programs whose effectiveness is in doubt.
"Almost every year, there seems to be a new effort to increase interest in math and science, and that doesn't happen by spending money," said Tom Schatz, president of the advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste. "The government is not good at steering people or creating jobs or pushing them in a certain direction. Kids who are being educated find their own level of interest."
Some opponents of the bills said Congress would be better off reducing corporate income taxes, instituting a permanent research and development tax credit, making changes to the patent system, and relaxing trade laws and export controls.
"For America to truly compete in a global economy, we have to do better than the knee-jerk Washington solution of throwing more money at government programs," said Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of eight Republicans who voted against a massive Senate bill that calls for nearly $60 billion--$16 billion of it new spending--for educational and research programs in math, science, engineering and technology. DeMint is also a member of the High Tech Task Force.
The America Competes Act, which numbers more than 200 pages, was backed by top leaders from both parties, enjoys a whopping 69 Senate co-sponsors, and has received accolades from high-tech companies. The bill proposes numerous new programs and spending increases, including doubling funding at the National Science Foundation from $5.6 billion to $11.2 billion over four years, allotting $140 million in federal grants over the next four years to help states open math and science specialty high schools, and setting aside $190 million over the next four years for summer programs at national laboratories.
Yet critics argue that there is no evidence that increased spending helps students, and point to examples like Washington, D.C., which has some of the highest per-pupil spending and some of the worst test scores. A better alternative, they say, would be school choice that effectively forces schools to compete with one another over quality.
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), also a member of the High Tech Task Force, was likewise "unable to support it in the end because he doesn't think America can be competitive if we're burdened by outrageous sums of national debt," spokesman Steve Wymer said in a telephone interview. The decision did not reflect a condemnation of the programs themselves--in fact, the senator supports many of the educational programs outlined in the bill--but "if you can't afford something, you can't afford it," he added.
The bills' sponsors say enactment of the legislation is critical to ensuring the United States turns out an ample number of homegrown scientists, engineers and technologists.
In the House of Representatives, an overlapping group of Republicans voted against two measures hailed as part of Pelosi's Innovation Agenda. (Not one Democrat joined them.)
"Both bills passed by overwhelming margins, reflecting the strong bipartisan support they enjoy across the nation," said Brendan Daly, a Pelosi spokesman.
One bill, which passed by a 389-22 vote, seeks to meet the goal of increasing by 10,000 each year the number of qualified math and science teachers in American schools by, among other things, setting aside nearly $700 million over the next five years to run a scholarship program for training teachers. The other bill, which passed by a 397-20 vote, includes nearly $300 million in new scholarships for undergraduate scholarships in math, science, engineering and technology fields.
Again, the opposition was largely rooted in the ventures' price tag--and in concerns that the bills would lead to more bureaucracy and erode states' control over their school systems.
A spokesman for Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a former educator and libertarian think tank leader, said his boss voted against both bills not only because they proposed spending billions of federal dollars but also because they directed states to do certain levels of hiring.
"If the states have any sort of budget issues in the future, it doesn't change the hiring directives," said spokesman Carlos Espinosa. "Then the federal government will essentially have to put these new educators on the federal payroll."
Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), who also voted against both measures, said in an e-mail interview that he was troubled that the bills created eight programs at a cost of more than $3 billion over the next five years. According to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report, 13 federal agencies were already spending $2.8 million on 207 different education programs directly related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, he added.
A House Democratic aide, who asked that his name be withheld, said the criticism from the bills' opponents held little weight because those members tend to dislike federal programs.
Kara Calvert, government relations director for the Information Technology Industry Council, whose members include Apple, Cisco Systems, Intel and Microsoft, said she agreed that government funding for education alone won't help boost high-tech companies' drive to best their foreign competitors. In ITIC's view, Congress also needs to make the R&D tax credit permanent and allow more skilled foreigners to come to American companies on H-1B visas.
Calvert also acknowledged that questions remain about the effectiveness of some existing educational programs, and the government needs to ensure it's channeling its money into areas that are working. Still, "as companies, we invest hundreds of millions of dollars every year in educational partnerships," she said. "We want to make sure our dollars are being matched."
Storme Street, vice president of government relations for the Electronic Industries Alliance, which represents nearly 1,300 large and small companies that span everything from consumer electronics to defense technology, noted that government-funded research programs have spawned any number of "breakthroughs," ranging from wireless Internet access to flat-screen TVs to home security systems.
"Once government researchers discover these nascent technologies, then companies can make the enormous investments to bring these applications to the market, benefiting millions of consumers and taxpayers," she said in an e-mail interview. "Cutting off that initial federal investment would delay these products and services by years, if not decades."