Nothing Outside The State

Oh, Slate. You certainly know how to troll for traffic.

You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.

That’s the opening line to an astonishing condescending post by Allison Benedikt about how people should not be allowed to send their kids to private schools. I’m not linking directly, but you can find it through the eviscerations by Popehat and Overlawyered:

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.

This caused Ross Douthat to reply with a quote from Mussolini: “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” If you follow the argument, your goal in life should not be to give your children all the advantages you can; it should be to sacrifice them on the altar to the greater public good. It won’t pay off today. But maybe, perhaps, if we wish really really really hard, it will pay off.

I used that phrase “sacrifice them on the altar” very specifically. Notice that Benedick cites no evidence that stuffing more kids into public schools would actually improve them. She just says we should put them in there and … it will happen. Because she thinks so. Her statement has as much reason and logic behind it as a pagan sacrificing a goat to Baal in the hopes that it will bring rain.

I would think this was Poe’s Law, but I have actually heard this argument before on some fringes of the left and some mainstream Lefties. Dylan Matthews and Matt Yglesias made sympathetic noises on Twitter. Dan McLaughlin reminded me this piece of excrement during the Chicago teacher’s strike. And I’ve also heard it from mainstream figures like Warren Buffet.

Destroying this column is like shooting fish in a barrel. But my shotgun has been a little rusty lately, so what the hell.

First, there are many problems that afflict our public schools. The biggest, in my opinion, are parents and students who simply don’t give a shit. I don’t see that manacling them to students who do is going to improve that situation. In fact, most of the parents who send their kids to private schools do care about the public ones. They pay hefty taxes, they vote for politicians who spend on education and many of them only move their kids to private schools after the public schools fail them. They care. They’ve just found that caring isn’t enough when faced with an education system that doesn’t want to listen and defines itself by the lowest common denominator.

If I listed off the problems of our public schools, students abandoning them for private schools would rank dead last. In fact, even the Gawker article hilariously stumbles on this:

Nationwide, where 10% of the nation’s students—and 16% of the white ones from families making more than $75,000 per year—attend private schools, the stratification is similar. White and asian students enroll in private schools at twice the rate of black and hispanic ones, according to Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project. Nearly two thirds of private-school students are from wealthy families. In the nation’s 40 largest school districts, one in three white students attends private school (the number is one in ten for black students).

Of course, that means 84% of kids from white middle class families are attending public schools. And 2/3 of white students in the largest districts are attending public schools. Even if you posit that the private school parents are selfish bastards, they are massively outvoted by those who use the public schools and have a vested and passionate interest in improving them. And this shows in the amount of money we throw at our public education system.

The “make people care by forcing their kids into public schools” argument stumbles on the petitio principii that the problem with our schools is that we don’t care enough and aren’t giving them enough resources. Even if that’s the case — and I don’t think it is — you need to prove that before you drag all the kids out of private schools.

Second, if you mandate public schools the only thing that will happen is that people who care about their kids’ education will move to good school districts**. They will take a bungalow in a good school district over a mansion in a bad one. This is already the case for much of the country. I moved to my current location, in part, because the public schools are outstanding. My university uses this as a big selling point to potential faculty. My brother moved to his current location partly for the good schools.

(*A lot of parents would actually home-school, but I’m assuming if you’re going to abolish private schools, you’re going to abolish home-schooling too.)

You could, of course, tear down the good public schools and force all their teachers and students to go to the bad schools. None of the fuckwits proposing to abolish private schools are proposing this but … one thing at a time, I guess.

Third, private schools aren’t always about bailing out of bad public schools. Ken’s post linked above details the choices his mother made and the ones he is making that have to do more with matching environment to a child than some nebulous definition of quality. Indeed, one of the biggest problems with our public schools is the increasing uniformity of methods and curricula that assume every child should learn the same things in the same way.

Fourth, redistributing “education resources” equally might … might … raise the level of mediocrity. But the price would be destroying the excellence without which our economy and our civilization can not survive. Benedick takes the attitude that she didn’t get a quality education in her public school. But she ended up writing idiotic articles for Slate, so why should she care? But without physics and calculus at my school (a public school, incidentally), I probably wouldn’t be a scientist. Without good teachers and good schools, many future scientists, doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs would fall by the wayside.

Really, when you break it down, that’s what this is about: a raging, screaming anti-intellectualism. Just as socialists hate wealth in material goods, the private school banners hate wealth in education. They don’t want anyone to be better than anyone else, anyone to be smarter than anyone else, anyone to have more opportunities. But if the past century has taught us anything, it’s that dragging achievers down doesn’t lift everyone else up. All it does is … drag the achievers down and the rest of us with them.

Matt Yglesias and others have made the point that the children of the wealthy will do just fine in the public schools (“the research is unequivocal” says Dylan Matthews). They just won’t be as happy. Pushing aside that many private school users are middle class parents who are trying to give their kids better opportunities than they had, education is not a social experiment. Nor are children assets to be used in social experimentation by the state. Even if private schools just buy a little extra happiness and peace of mind for kids whose parents can afford it (and in many cases, can’t), what the hell is wrong with that? Oh, I forgot. Those children do not exist for themselves, but to be assets in our Education System.

The odds that private schools will be abolished are pretty close to zero. But I wanted to blog about this because it illustrates an important point. If you ever wanted to know why I could never be a leftie, this is a perfect example. The idea of outlawing public schools is offensive, stupid, misguided and vicious. It is based almost entirely on wealth envy and anti-intellectualism. And it reduces children to human sacrifices to the Great God of the Public Good. No one would take it seriously (and indeed, Slate commenters are ripping the piece in comments). But it has caused a lot of left-wing chins to be stroked and a lot of, “well, she has a point…” pontificating. It is a vivid reminder of the moral and intellectual vacuum on the fringe Left that our media try to pretend doesn’t exist.


All Year Round

You may be familiar with the restaurant joke that goes like this: two guys are complaining about a bad restaurant. The first says, “The food is just horrible”. And the second says, “Yeah, and the portions are so small!”

Looks like our nation’s educators didn’t get the joke:

Five states were to announce Monday that they will add at least 300 hours of learning time to the calendar in some schools starting in 2013. Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee will take part in the initiative, which is intended to boost student achievement and make U.S. schools more competitive on a global level.

The three-year pilot program will affect almost 20,000 students in 40 schools, with long-term hopes of expanding the program to include additional schools — especially those that serve low-income communities. Schools, working in concert with districts, parents and teachers, will decide whether to make the school day longer, add more days to the school year or both.

The big force behind this is Arne Duncan. Duncan is a bit mixed. He supports charter schools and enraged the unions by being civil to Michelle Rhee. But his “race to the top” mainly forced national standards on everyone. And his record in Chicago was, at best mixed.

Duncan is really big on expanding school. And by that I mean he thinks we should have school six or seven days a week, 11 or 12 months of the year.

Yeah.

Apart from the destruction of childhood this would entail, I am not convinced it would improve things at all.

Year-round schooling would only sour more children on education. By making it even more demanding than a job, children would feel like they were in prison. By not giving them breaks for vacations and family time and just running around enjoying life, you would squeeze some of the joy out of life. When I was in high school, I knew people were desperate to graduate just because they were so damned sick of school. We put kids in schools that much, they will all feel that way. I realize this trade-off may sound fine to a government hack like Duncan who sees children mainly as assets of the state needed to create wealth and power for him and his Harvard buddies. But most of see children as, you know, people. So even if this did improve education — and I don’t think it will — it may not be worth it.

(Yeah, I know that’s a nasty thing to say about Duncan. Fuck him. He wants to place a nasty burden on children.)

Year-round schooling really crosses me as just another twist of the “spend more money” paradigm that has defined Democratic education ideas for time out of mind. When they figured out that “spend more money” didn’t fly with the public, they rebranded it as “hire more teachers” or “make classes smaller”. But now the public has cottoned on to that, so they need a new euphimism. That fact is that year-round school means hiring more teachers, as came up in the recent Chicago strike. I have to think that’s at least 60% of the motive here.

But even if we ignore the shrinking of childhood issue; even if we ignore the spending issue; I just don’t think it will work. As I’ve noted before, our children actually perform reasonably well the first few years of school. It is only at higher levels that the performance falls. The problem is not that children aren’t manacled to their desks often enough. The problem is that we have a school system that is bloated, administration-heavy, has erased accountability and tried to make up for it by destroying any education freedom for students, parents and especially teachers. In one of his books, Phillip Howard describes DC regulations that micromanage teachers’ classes down to the minute. And, of course, no educational reform can overcome parents and students who just don’t give a shit.

You know what this reminds me of? Homework. For years, we were told that increasing homework loads were good for students. It made them study more! But recent studies are indicating that heavy loads of homework show little educational improvement but impose a huge burden on parents, students and teachers. They make children loathe education rather than embrace it. And many schools, including our local one, are backing down to more reasonable levels of homework.

The solution to bad schooling is not more bad schooling. If children can’t learn in the time they are already allotted, an extra 300 hours isn’t going to help. And it’s only going to make life more difficult for the students who are learning and the teachers who are teaching. I realize that there’s not a teacher out there who hasn’t gotten to the end of school year and felt like they didn’t get through all the material. But, at some point, you have to close the books for a few weeks at least.

I suspect this program may show some results: small carefully managed pilot programs often do but then those reforms fail when applied to a much larger sample. But we should oppose any attempt to expand this. It’s just not the solution.

A Setback for Louisiana

As you may recall, Bobby Jindal has started a large voucher program for Louisiana schools. I’ve expressed support for this, even though some schools eligible for vouchers are teaching creationism. My point is that if it’s a choice between schools that don’t teach evolution and schools that don’t teach anything, that’s not really a choice. And it’s absurd to take some of the more nutty religious schools and claim this represents the entire system.

Yesterday, a Republican judge ruled the program unconstitutional. But it appears to be a much narrower ruling than the Left was hoping for (and thinks it is):

Kelley said the method the Jindal administration, state education leaders and lawmakers used to pay for the voucher program violates state constitutional provisions governing the annual education funding formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program or MFP.

“The MFP was set up for students attending public elementary and secondary schools and was never meant to be diverted to private educational providers,” Kelley wrote in a 39-page ruling.

Kelley, a Republican, didn’t rule on whether it’s appropriate to spend state tax dollars on private school tuition, leaving open the possibility for lawmakers to pay for the program in a different way. His decision was narrowly focused on the financing mechanism chosen by the GOP governor and approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and lawmakers.

Note what he did not do: he did not rule that vouchers can not be done because they go to religious schools, an issue the Supreme Court already ruled on in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. So this has nothing to do with fundamentalism, evolution or religion. It is a matter of fiscal law.

I’m not a lawyer, least of all one in Louisiana, so I don’t know if Kelley is right on this. I suspect, given the narrowness of the ruling, he is right and the Louisiana legislature is going to have to find another way to do this (and provoke an entirely new spate of cartel-defending lawsuits).

What is striking, however, is the glee with which this ruling has been received on a number of Left wing blogs. The writers don’t really seem to care what this means for the rotten Louisiana school system (which actually spends more per student than neighboring states). All they seem to care about is that this is a defeat for Bobby Jindal and the evil religious nutbags.

I do think the critics make one valid point: vouchers are not a “magic bullet” that can cure our schools. In the end, the most important factor is having parents who are involved and committed to their child’s education. But I do think a voucher system gives those parents who are involved more power and leverage over the system. Not power over the teachers, mind you, who need some independence; but power over the over-arching administrative nightmare makes public schools difficult for students, parents and teachers.