Tag Archives: public education

Market Economy versus Market Society

A recent opinion column from the Lafayette Journal-Gazette caught my eye. Written by Ed Eiler, a former school superintendent, it began

Three recent newsworthy items deserve our attention. The first is a study in the American Educational Research Journal, which concluded rising income inequality in the U.S. is a primary cause of the growing economic segregation of schools. As the gap grows, affluent families are more likely to segregate themselves into enclaves where there are few poor children in the public schools.

The second is a report issued by the Indiana Department of Education that calculated the net increased cost for the state’s education voucher program to be $53.2 million. Some 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

The final report is one completed by the National Conference of State Legislatures addressing educational reform. The report acknowledges there are no silver bullets and the present efforts at reform have failed. The report recognizes the importance of having all stakeholders be a part of the process of improving our schools.

Why does any of this matter? All of these reports can be tied to the effort to privatize education.

Eiler then references a book by Michael Sandel, who makes an important distinction between markets that deal with material goods, which he finds “valuable and productive” and markets operating  in areas where they do not belong, in our civic lives.

Should educational opportunities be made available based upon the ability to pay? Should we pay children to read books or get good grades? Should people receive health care on the basis of their ability to pay? Should access to politicians and the political system be governed by those who have more money? Should legal representation be affected by one’s financial circumstances? Should you be able to pay someone else to take your place in serving your country? Should citizenship be for sale?

Sandel asserts markets may in fact undermine or crowd out non-market attitudes and values worth caring about and change the character of some goods and social practices. He writes that the most corrosive effect of markets is the loss of our commonality – “we’re all in it together.”

This argument underscores what I have sometimes called a “category mistake.” I’ve previously written that our misguided and unsuccessful drug war is a consequence of placing drug abuse in the category of criminal justice rather than public health. Similarly, too many school reform efforts categorize education as another consumer good, rather than a public necessity.

Of course we all want our children to receive educations that will enable them to compete for jobs and status, just as we all want university graduates to find gainful employment. But the purpose of education goes far beyond those “consumer” goals. Genuine education is not job training; it both enriches the lives of recipients (a market good) and creates good citizens (a social good). As political scientist Benjamin Barber has written, public education is constitutive of a public.

So long as we think of education as a consumer good, a “product” we purchase for our children, we will continue to have affluent families segregate themselves from poorer communities, and we will continue to exacerbate inequality.

Public education is–and must be categorized as–a public good. And an exceptionally important one. Properly understood, it is not something that private markets can provide.

Self-Interest Properly Understood–and Taxes

Since at least the late 1980s, policy disputes in the United States have largely revolved around the actual and perceived deficiencies of government. It has been an article of faith among self-styled fiscal conservatives that wasteful state and federal governments are imposing excessive and unnecessary tax burdens on the American public.

Engaging in this line of argumentation is particularly  appealing to candidates for public office, since it plays to widespread resentment of the obligation to pay taxes while avoiding the pesky need to identify specific instances of the “fraud and waste” that are widely supposed to exist.

There are certainly situations where tax dollars are misspent. Most of those situations involve poor management practices, since voters tend to base their support for political candidates on ideology rather than perceived managerial competence. But more often than not, assertions of “waste” are based upon disagreement with something that government is doing–a belief that services being provided or programs being supported are unnecessary (especially when such services or programs are primarily seen to benefit others).

What government should do, and how it should fund what it does, are persistent and entirely legitimate issues. The problem is, too many of us have imbibed the Kool-aid; we want the services, we want to live in thriving communities with a good quality of life, but we don’t want to pay for the services and amenities necessary to produce that quality of life.

Worse, we frequently don’t recognize the ways in which we benefit even from government programs and services we don’t personally use. A couple of examples:

When voters are asked to support bond issues or tax increases for public education, people who do not have children in the system (usually a majority of those voting) often oppose the measures, because they see no personal benefit, no immediate “return on investment.” What they fail to recognize is that the quality of local public education systems affects their property values, enhances (or diminishes) job creation efforts, and makes their communities safer and more attractive. In the long run, good schools are in their personal self-interest.

Similar metrics apply to taxes for public transportation. Even people who will never use transit benefit personally from public transportation systems that reduce congestion, improve air quality, connect low-income workers to their places of employment, and improve mobility for the elderly and disabled.

Even people who care only about minimizing their personal tax burden will ultimately benefit, because long-term, the ability to hold down tax rates  (especially here in Indiana, where constitutionally-imposed tax caps severely restrict municipal governments’ revenue options) will depend upon a city’s ability to grow its tax base–its ability to entice people to move in, buy homes and start businesses. Cities that successfully market themselves do so based upon quality of life measures–good schools, well-maintained parks, excellent public transportation.

Often, sound investments take time to generate returns. That’s particularly true of investments in our communities.

Sometimes, “self-interest properly understood” (as De Tocqueville noted many years ago) is the opposite of immediate gratification. That doesn’t mean the investments aren’t necessary and worthwhile.

 

Diversity and Distrust Revisited

Thanks primarily to the wackier GOP candidates for President (okay, that’s virtually all of them), we’re seeing a recurrence of socially divisive arguments about “political correctness,” abortion, religion and immigration–and an elevation, in unfortunate and not-so-veiled forms, of America’s racist impulses.

I was pondering our current unlovely public discourse, with its rejection of “otherness,” when my eyes fell on my bookshelf, and on Stephen Macedo’s 2000 book, Diversity and Distrust. The book was a meditation on the important civic role played by public schools in multi-ethnic societies like ours. I leafed through it to see where I’d highlighted observations (something that’s harder to do on a Kindle app), and I thought I’d share a few of them:

American public schools have been, in many ways, where the tension between diversity and the felt need to promote shared values has played out most dramatically. This institution has, from its inception, been the principal direct public instrument for creating a shared political culture amid religious, racial, ethnic and class diversity.

..some of the the most basic and widely discussed conflicts around public schools have been the consequence of religious opposition to basic civic ideals.

The [common/public school] was meant to pursue a novel set of civic ends: consolidation under public aegises was essential to the institution’s civic agenda.

The proponents of many orthodoxies, especially perhaps integral and totalistic belief systems, will not be happy with educational institutions that include all of the children within a pluralistic community. We cannot pursue shared civic ends without making it harder for the proponents of some moral and religious doctrines to perpetuate their views.

Macedo’s book was a full-throated–and persuasive– defense of the importance of public education in a diverse democratic country.

In Indiana, we’ve turned our backs on the civic mission of the schools, bowing to the demands of those who value particularist dogma, privatization, interest group politics and profits above the need to create and perpetuate a common American culture based upon our particular (and yes, in that sense “exceptional”) historical and legal commitments.

Inexplicable Endorsement

I’m stunned.

The Indiana State Teachers’ Association has had an uncomfortable relationship with efforts to reform education. ISTA’s purpose, after all, is to represent the interests of public school teachers, and in a time when many public schools are not performing, even teachers disagree about what their interests are and where the Association’s efforts should be directed. So I understand why ISTA might decide not to endorse State Representative Mary Ann Sullivan, who is running for the State Senate this year, even though it endorsed her in earlier campaigns. Mary Ann has been a passionate and articulate advocate for education reform, and some of those reforms aren’t consistent with ISTA positions.

But rather than staying out of the race entirely–which would have been understandable–ISTA has endorsed Brent Waltz, the incumbent. And that makes no sense at all.

Waltz is a far-right Republican who defeated Larry Borst–the long-time “Dean” of the Senate and moderate Republican whose budgetary expertise was legendary–in a culture-war primary campaign. Waltz came at Borst from the Right and emphasized his anti-abortion and anti-gay positions–positions antithetical to ISTA’s.

When I heard about the endorsement, I thought perhaps Waltz’s tenure had modified or educated him, or that he had taken some position that would explain an otherwise inexplicable decision to support him, so I did some research.

Here’s what I found:

  • TV 6 reported that Waltz was the director of a company called Indianapolis Diversified Machinery; when it closed, employees discovered that the company had failed to pay into the state’s unemployment insurance fund. Terminated employes who needed unemployment were just out of luck–and were also unable to collect several weeks of back pay. (Interestingly, as TV 6 pointed out, Waltz had voted against measures to “fix” problems in Indiana’s Unemployment Insurance program. Guess he didn’t see the point of fixing something he was ignoring anyway.)
  • Waltz co-authored Indiana’s version of “stand your ground” legislation. The bill authorized the use of force against public servants.
  • Waltz supported a constitutional amendment to entirely repeal residential property taxes. Aside from the fact that tax measures do not belong in the state’s constitution (as we are already seeing with the disaster that is the tax caps), and aside from the equal protection and economic issues involved in shifting the entire tax burden to businesses, residential property tax payers are the largest source of funding for our public schools.
  • Unlike Sullivan, Waltz supports vouchers–not just charter schools, which are public schools, but the use of tax dollars to send “children of all income brackets” to private schools.

I can understand why ISTA might disagree with some of the reforms championed by Mary Ann Sullivan. I can understand why parochial considerations might lead them to stay out of this race.

I don’t understand why ISTA would endorse a culture warrior who supports measures that would be disastrous to public education if enacted. That one is beyond my comprehension.

 

A Succinct Prescription

One of the things I enjoy about Facebook is my friends’ regular posting of cartoons, pithy sayings and thought-provoking quotations (some real, some highly doubtful…).

This morning, someone posted a photo of a sign held by a member of the “Occupy” movement. The sign enumerated the “demands” of the 99% –healthcare for all, jobs, good public education and a clean environment.

That really doesn’t seem to be too much to expect.

When we ask THE political question–what should government do?–most liberal democracies have answered that government is the collective mechanism we use to provide those things individuals cannot provide alone. Economists call this “market failure,” but the basic idea is that, in order to flourish as individual citizens, we require an infrastructure. To use a local example, individuals buy their own cars, but they need roads on which to drive them, traffic signals to direct them safely, etc. The over-arching question in free societies is always: what should government provide, and what should be left to the private and nonprofit sectors? What can people do for themselves through the market or through voluntary associations, and what must be provided collectively–i.e., “socialized.” (Yes, Tea Party people, that’s what that word means.)

The list on the placard, while not exhaustive, seems pretty reasonable to me. Individuals acting alone cannot protect the environment. Health and education are not consumer goods, they are public goods–and leaving them to the vagaries of the market leads to huge inequities and inefficiencies. As for jobs, I’m one of those throwbacks who thinks we ought to seriously debate the merits of government as the employer of last resort.

Health, jobs, education and clean air and water. What will the ungrateful masses demand next?