Conservatives Mucking in Education

I breezed through a conservative blog post on education in Forbes the other day. Of course you don’t expect to have deep, thought-provoking discussion on anything in Forbes, much less education. And even though the blogger claimed to specialize in the “sector” of education (he listed himself as a Forbes “contributor,” much like the “reporters” of, I guess), it was the typical conservative stew of screw public eduction, shut down “failing” schools, administer more and harder tests, compensate “good” teachers. This one had the added flavor of suggesting, for the less well-off part of the right-wing coalition, I suppose, that public educators are in something of a conspiracy to dumb down education to save their cushy jobs. In this, they must act a lot like right-wingers think biologist, geneticists, ecologists, paleontologists, &c., &c., you know, that cabal that has done their damnedest to hide proof of the 6 day Creation event (or the other one in Genesis 2; fundamentalists are never clear which Genesis creation story is the “real” one).

Let me step back a moment from the shoddy writing of Mr. James Marshall Crotty and the near hysteria that right-wingers always bring to policy discussions and see if we can understand what conservatives are talking about when they talk public education. Who knows? If we dug deep under the screaming they may have an idea or two. Surely an entire movement cannot be completely off-the-wall. And it’s not like the moonshine that Arne Duncan has been peddling is going to do whatever it is we expected “improved” education, of the sort that the temporizers like Mr. Duncan admires, to do.

First, let’s assume that the policy positions of the conservatives are genuinely believed by them.. I realize that most of the readers of Forbes are conservatives for one reason: less tastes, less regulation. And throw in some opportunities that privatizing government services might offer for further enrichment of the already stuffed and I think you have the mind-set of the main backbone of the conservative-tea party movement. The Koch brothers don’t invest real money in politics to produce a better education policy.

But, that said, there are numerous policy-paper producing organizations, and while I suspect most of it is funded to give the appearance to undecided moderates that there is an intellectual basis for their positions (or to give the rabid something to scream about), and it might advance public discussion of policy (at some future date when the Republican Party has somehow become a party that participates in governing rather than obstruction)) to try to figure out whether there is an intellectual basis for their policies.

So, let’s recognize that the right-wing is extremely ideologically rigid and its members believe they have a consistent world-view based on their conception of the nature of man and his relation to government. It may be so. I think, if we tried to isolate the essence of the right-wing, it would be the belief that all humans are inherently selfish, and, at least in the U.S., are motivated almost exclusively by the desire to accumulate as much money as possible, in order to acquire goods (mainly) and services that go with the life fulfilled. This selfishness prevents people from acting in concert for any mutual benefit, because everyone will spike the punchbowl just to get a relative small advantage over others. In other words, no one can be trusted to act in a disinterested, altruistic manner, advocating rules that are best for the group; people only act for themselves, and to a lesser extent, for their families. All public policy questions are zero-sum games, and every time a rule is made, it is done by the combination of “undeserving” people organized around “special interests,” which is always in derogation of a well-regulated society.

The “market,” however is different; it provides the only “uncorrupted” and unbiased mechanism for regulating society. Everyone knows that market actors are entirely selfish. No one expects anyone to act altruistically, and if one claims he is so acting, he can be easily shunned as a charlatan. Nevertheless, for reasons that are mostly mysterious (and beyond regulation or enhancement by even well-intentioned policy makers, of which there are none), the “market” is not a zero-sum game. I can enter into a transaction with you, and event though I have extracted every last cent I wanted to from you, you might also think it was a good bargain. And we both might be right, and hence the “economy” expands with both of us being happy.

That is the inherit difference between government and “private enterprise,” according to the conservative. We can expected market participants to act wholly selfishly, and we can nevertheless profit from their participation; even in their dealings with us personally. Government, on the other hand, cannot work in any way other than by one group “taking” what rightfully belongs to another. Government does not produce anything; it is essentially a fraud, because those comprising it and those influencing it claim to be acting altruistically, when no human can.

This I think is a fair presentation of the underlying world-view of the modern-day conservative. You can dress it up as you please. It’s the same whether you put it in the coy, refined and faux-intellectual manner of William Buckley or in the angry, ritualistic vituperation of the Tea Partier dressed in 18th century urban finery. It can be extended to all the American right. Depending on your definition of “market” and “government,” it is equally true of militia men, fundamentalist Bible-thumpers, conspiracists of all stripes and the cocktail party of Manhattan investment bankers and their caddies, the Wall Street lawyers.

So any time the “government” (meaning simply the U.S. federal government or any collection of do-gooders who try to make neutral rules generally applicable) gets its hands on anything, there is a loss of “liberty.” The Right does not understand “liberty” in the same way that rationalists of the 18th century did or even constitutional lawyers of the 21st century do. What they mean by “liberty” is the right to enrich themselves with no restraint, no one telling them to be fair to others, no rules to prevent them from getting ahead of their neighbor in any way they might wish: in accumulating money, firearms, automobiles that as much CO2 as they wish, beliefs in whatever they want (without interference from “educators”).

That is why the debate about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) is dressed up in terms of “liberty.” Conservatives couldn’t care less whether it provides more care, more cheaply to more people. They don’t give a damn about expanding insurance exchanges. They have no interest in whether or not it reduces redundancies or allows everyone to spend money otherwise wasted on better care or other goods. They object to the fact that do-gooders, that is self-appointed activists, have proposed any rules for general applicability. These rules—good, bad or indifferent—prevent someone, perhaps lots of people, arguably including themselves, from doing something he or they want for purely selfish reasons. And that restriction on selfishness is tyranny for all of us.

Other examples need not be pursued, you get the point. And the Right has a name for this withdrawal of ability to act selfishly: Socialism. “Liberal” no longer has the sting that it did from the lips of that prissy patrician George H.W.Bush. So a term from used for “The Enemy” in an older, darker and more virulent Right Wing was needed. Hence, the name of the Great Enemy of the forces of 20th Century European right-wing movements of all stripes: Socialism.

Now that we have set the stage, let’s see how this viewpoint is applied to the activity (generally not considered of much interest in its own right by the conservative mind) called “education.” The natural inclination of the Right is to take away all discretion and rule-making ability by the self-appointed do-gooders (that is, the “educators”) and apply in their place neutral rules. The only neutral rule-maker they know is the market. And the way the market works is to depend on individual selfishness. So, let us assume that the public school teacher is motivated by selfishness. And the way to weed out the chaff from the wheat is to have in effect a compensation system which rewards the good teachers and penalizes the bad ones.

Now, at this point, a problem arises. How do you tell who is a good teacher and who is a bad one? Well, it seems obvious to the conservative, their output must be measured in scores of their students. So the higher the scores of a teacher’s students, by  definition the better the teacher.

Let’s stop here a moment and posit a little problem. Suppose the scores of students are correlated with the wealth or income of their parents. And further let us suppose that people tend to organize themselves into localities stratified by income and class. Wouldn’t that mean that the best scores would come from students located in wealthier localities? And wouldn’t a rational economic actor, say the selfish teacher, act as the rational actor by simply trying to teach in the schools of the wealthier localities? Is this a result we want to encourage? Maybe so, I’m not finished with the conservative approach yet.

In order to have “scores” the conservative must have in mind what is being tested. In other words, the conservative must interest himself in what is taught. Or does the market decide whether 10th-graders should read Shakespeare rather than Corporate Finance 101: EBITDA? As Contributor Crotty sneeringly accuses in his Forbes blog post. How can we trust the tests anyway? Can the market make them better? Not if, according to Mr. Crotty, public school teachers and their administrators are involved. They are incentivized to help each other (unlike their model, the Selfish Man, Ifor some reason).

But isn’t there a more fundamental objection to this approach? Doesn’t the Market Man model suppose that the reward for acting in accord with the rules of the neutral market accrue to the benefit of the better players, the persons whose behavior we want to influence? The market awards monopoly profits to the inventor or his designee. (Actually the “government” does this by creating and enforcing the patent system, but that’s a technicality for the True Believer.) The market doesn’t hand out awards to the inventor’s teacher or adviser or parent. So if we are trying to “educate” students, shouldn’t we give the incentive to the student directly? After all, there is certainly enough money in the system to incentivize tens of thousands of students to take up football every year. And i’m told we make the very best football players in the world. The incentives they get are long-deferred, not certain and even in most cases outside their control. That does not prevent our “scholar-athletes” from pursuing them. If we want a system that encourages real scholars, wouldn’t incentives directed at them (scholarships, certain future, opportunities thorough education, etc.) be the better approach?

Of course, the conservative is hardly willing to come up with more money for education, even for market-like incentives. Nor is the conservative willing to require more equal distribution of existing resources. Public education is largely paid for by local communities. Wealthy communities pay for lavish schools, and get results. Poor communities or corrupt ones (I thinking here of Bridgeport, Connecticut) can’t pay as much, and the results show. If education funding were to be equalized, presumably decisions on what the funds could be spent on would have to be taken away from local control too. As someone who doesn’t subscribe to the conservative model of market-based solutions, I can certainly see why a school board that pays for the largest Jumbotron in Texas high schools (for $750,000) should have outside controls. Not to mention the one who wants to outdo its in-state rival with a %1 million 48-foot Jumbotron. But of course, to the conservative, “local control” is what makes for the “competition.” Because the market is value-neutral, according to the conservative, we have no right to suggest that the money should be better spent on, say, education.

It is of course ludicrous to think that the Right Wing’s view of education would work. The real problem, however, is that it is really not even consistent with its own view of how humans act. The supposed deference to markets is illusory. There is no private incentive to educate non-paying students. And even paying students would not be the prime concern of the market, but rather the return of investment of the investors. But even if the conservative were to use public money, it would require a vast apparatus of to create and administer “education goals.” This wasn’t tolerated for health care; not even close. So why is the right interested in nationalizing education?

I suspect that this is another fraud on the Right’s part. There is no interest in “improving” education. There isn’t even a discussion of what education is supposed to achieve on the part of the Wing Nut Think Tanks. And who would decide that? A group of do-gooders? Wouldn’t they risk a decision that public money ought not be spent on schools that taught non-scientific Creationism, something the federal government now does to the tune of $1/2 billion/year for right-wing Liberty University? A national discussion on education policy would run entirely counter to the right’s desperate goal—preventing do-gooders from making policy.

The real goal, of course, is to demonize public education to such an extent that public money is siphoned to private ends. This is done through tax policy in the laboratory of reaction, Arizona. It is not surprising that in the case of Arizona the right-wing politician who devised the plunder of the public for private gain, himself has enriched himself handsomely. But that’s how the market works. It incentivizes amoral market participants to enrich themselves for the overall benefit of the entire system. To the reactionary, that it also impoverishes public programs is an added plus.

There are real issues that ought to be dealt with in public education, and I hope to deal with some that I have seen first hand. But the panacea of the right is sheer non-sense. There is no more reason to trust their instincts on education than to trust them on climate policy or health care. The American right-wing is devoid of ideas, as they are devoid of morality on this as well as almost everything you hear come out of the mouths of their leaders or their mouthpiece Fox News. But of course, you should have known that when their central defining belief is that no one can be trusted.

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