Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, says the latest $23 billion federal bailout for public school systems is "desperately" needed and the unspeakable alternative would be "catastrophe."

Isn't it strange that less than 18 months ago, the Chicken Littles said the schoolhouse roof would collapse unless it was shored up immediately? In the nick of time, Congress came up with $100 billion, about half of it in direct aid to states, to stave off that catastrophe. Whew! The PTA and the teachers' unions again sighed in relief.

The profligacy is particularly galling in the context of results, dubious though the measurements may be. Scores in achievement tests in various states have not shown marked improvement and, in fact, even have dipped a bit in too many places. Aware that classroom success, and hence faculty performance, is measured by such tests, teachers in some states have been "over-reaching," according to The New York Times.

Putting it more bluntly, the Times reported downright cheating by educators in Texas, Oregon, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, Virginia and "elsewhere." In Houston, where fifth-grade math and science teachers were promised bonuses of up to $2,850 as rewards for improved scores by their students, there was a full-blown scandal.

Scores there suddenly soared and an investigation revealed that teachers had tampered with tests, sneaked preview looks at questions and then gave students an appropriate "study guide." The school's principal, assistant principal and three teachers later resigned and students' scores were invalidated.

There also have been reports of teachers peering over the shoulders of students taking tests and giving them helpful hints.

Yet, cheating is relatively rare and, as in Houston, quickly nipped in the bud. But now temptations mount as students' test scores are increasingly factored into teachers' performance reviews. The trend calls for increased vigilance, of course. It also cautions against over-dependence on scores in standardized tests as a measure of how well a student is learning.

Not all extravagance in educational spending can be attributed to test score pressures, however. Media pundit George Will, who tends to suspect Democratic chicanery at every turn, blames political catering to unionized public employees, teachers in the case at hand. He may have something there.

"Emergencies" in the education system have become cyclical, a new one arising almost as soon as an old one is met. The federal share of spending on public schools, supposedly a state and local responsibility, has doubled in 10 years and it seems the more that's available the more it becomes "essential." Tenure, automatic annual salary increases, handsome pension plans, great health care insurance, control of class size, new programming, the "need" for more teachers and more aides -- it all smacks of "empire building" by unions. A budgetary priority would demand a harder line in negotiating contracts with all public employee unions.

There's no way to disagree that state and local government obligations in public education need and deserve help from Washington. The great work done by most teachers is acknowledged and appreciated. But there's cause to dispute the way those dollars are used, especially when results are questionable.

Writing in a journal called "Education Next," Southern Methodist University researchers point out that public schools in the nation have had more money and more employees per student in each succeeding year even as enrollments dropped and the economy soured. Pointedly, their article is titled "The Phony Funding Crisis."

In Danbury last week, plans for an infant-to-age-3 program in the public school system were outlined as one use of federal stimulus funds. In Ridgefield this spring, all-day kindergarten suddenly became absolutely essential although half-day sessions had been acceptable for decades and had not caused any educational disaster. Why now?

The value of both programs is not in dispute. The timing is. Introducing costly new programs (Ridgefield's will cost an estimated $700,000 a year, Danbury's well over a million) is decidedly extravagant at a time when revenues are down and municipal budget constraints force layoffs and hiring freezes.

Until the economy is robust again, we ought to at least hold the line.