One of the most contentious issues between liberals and conservatives is meaningful educational reforms. Whether discussing funding, school choice, or even the very purpose of education in the United States, the differences in opinion are profoundly disparate. However, there is one thing common to both camps- recognition of the importance of education to the social and economic fabric in today’s world. Although the ways to get there are very different, both sides recognize the importance of education and the need for reforms that make US students more competitive. In this regard, I honestly believe that conservatives have the better solutions overall. When you think about it, the liberal answer to educational reform boils down to more money. Money may make the world go around, to paraphrase a song from “Cabaret,” but it does not and has not solved many of the problems of our educational system. As I will show later, in fact, the more the federal government has intervened in K-12 education and the more they have spent in this area, the more stagnation or backwards slide we have seen.
However, conservatives do not deny that educating today’s youth costs money. The conservative view is to place accountability controls on those expenditures and, in effect, get the biggest bang for the buck. Admittedly, not all conservative ideas work out in the ideal manner they were proposed. For example, as I will try to illustrate, charter schools certainly came into vogue at the insistence of conservatives, yet your typical charter school has a 50% chance of failure or success- odds not great enough to declare charter schools the great panacea. Nor is home schooling, private education, school vouchers, merit pay or any other myriad of reforms THE panacea.
But it is conservatives who are at least willing to give these ideas a try. Liberals, on the other hand, are entrenched in their views. No doubt, much of this is less ideologically motivated than politically motivated. After all, looking at what educational unions give to Democrats and liberals, one can see that liberals are more beholden to teacher unions than they are to the children they purport to help. That is not to say that some liberals do not have the best interests of children and students at heart. However, in the overall sense, money talks louder than principles and I know of no Democratic candidate who has played down a 100% rating from the NEA or who has turned down NEA campaign contributions. We really don’t have to worry about Republican candidates since they receive negligible sums in the first place. Perhaps, this is what allows Republicans and conservatives to make the tough choices and propose real reforms in the first place. They do not have that financial tether to the educational establishment which wishes to maintain the status quo… only with more money.
I know of very few true conservatives who begrudge teachers the pay they receive. Simply, it is a tough job often under tough circumstances often with competing mandates that have to be negotiated. Conversely, I know many true conservatives who simply require that the pay be consistently justified. Thus, the idea of educational accountability becomes a cornerstone of conservative reforms. There are three main political obstacles to true educational reform.
The first obstacle is the obvious concentration of costs. Many studies have found that this phenomena is an impediment to reforms not only in the educational context, but in other areas. When there is no nexus between the costs and the benefits in terms of concentration, then there will be resistance to reforms. For example, it would be more likely to pass reforms of the social security system if there are increased benefits in exchange for higher taxes because the costs and the benefits are distributed, not concentrated. When a cost is concentrated but the benefits distributed, there will be some resistance to reform, but that resistance will sometimes gives way. An example of this is automobile safety requirements where the benefits are less fatalities and the cost is born by car buyers (concentrated).
Educational reforms that address quality of the educational system have very real advantages, but the costs are concentrated. Namely, there stands to be winners and losers in this system and the losers really do not want to lose. Thus, there is massive resistance to the changes. Think teacher unions and merit-based pay. Meanwhile, there is equal opposition to access reforms. On the one side, conservatives oppose expanding pre-K education (which increases access) and liberals oppose alternative means and funding of education (vouchers). Although the costs are generally distributed, the benefits are concentrated. Thus any reform efforts must overcome economic realities. Generally speaking,there are no cost/benefit analysis of school reform efforts.
Ironically, it is the conservatives who are more “progressive,” for lack of another word, when it comes to educational reforms. Be it vouchers, home schooling, charter schools, merit pay, or curriculum reforms, it is usually conservatives at the forefront. Liberals, on the other hand, offer no real solutions other than spending more on education- improve the classroom atmosphere, decrease classroom size, introduce technology where 75% of the students will neither understand nor use that technology, pay teachers more, pay administration less, hire more teachers, etc.
Additionally, it is way to simplistic to advance the argument that teacher unions are the primary impediment to educational reforms and improvements. After all, teacher unions are doing what a union is supposed to be doing- representing the wants and needs of their members. Furthermore, if unions were the sole reason for obstructing reforms, then non-unionized schools and charter schools, which are generally non-union, would perform better in all circumstances. We know that not to be the case. Also, we know that when teacher unions are involved in the reform process and truly committed to reform, then the chances of those reforms are much better. A perfect example of opposing outcomes is Minnesota under Governor Pawlenty and New Jersey under Governor Christie.
In Minnesota, the reforms Pawlenty undertook were predicated upon need and political reality. Realizing that he had a Republican majority in the legislature, the Minnesota teacher unions realized that it was better to participate in the reforms and have a seat at the table rather than have reforms foisted upon them. The result was that what started as a pilot program expanded statewide and was such a success that other states like Colorado copied their reforms. In New Jersey, however, Christie entered office seriously at odds with the NJEA- the largest teacher union in the state. In a sit down with the head of the NJEA, Christie realized that the union came to the table to maintain the status quo. She was subsequently kicked out of Christie’s office. The result was that meaningful classroom level reforms were never instituted, but Christie won important concessions on school funding and teacher medical and retirement benefits, to the minimal detriment of the teacher’s pay check.
To show how the NJEA works, I will never forget that day in school when a student said to me he was going to lead others to Trenton to “kill Christie.” When asked why, he explained that Mrs. _______ said Christie cut school funding and teacher pay and as a result the after-school soccer program was terminated. This same Mrs. ________ has a “Starve Christie” bumper sticker on her classroom file cabinet and is the union representative in the school. But alas, Mrs. _____ is an equal opportunity union curmudgeon: she filed a grievance against the first year music teacher for incorrectly inputting his grades into the computer system thus causing her the time to re-input her grades, a process that takes all of 10 minutes. But, that would be ten less minutes to rile up kids about their soccer team. Incidentally, they still have a soccer team and despite that mean old fat Christie, they won the district championship three years in a row now. Come to think of it, they also have a volleyball team, a floor hockey team, a track and field team, a cross country team and even a swimming team (but no pool at their school).
The bottom line of this introductory article in this series is that there is plenty of blame to go around regarding the lack of educational reform. But, there is no mistaking that the bulk of that blame lies with liberals and their Democratic allies. Years of funding at the federal level have achieved nothing- an indictment of the “more money” arguments. Today, we spend more on per-pupil spending nationally than at any time in the past and have seen, in that same time span, American students falling behind their foreign counterparts in many areas.
Another final thought as it concerns conservatives and the GOP going forward and it is a point I have made repeatedly. Many Republicans believe, falsely I conjecture, that the way to the growing Hispanic vote is through immigration reform. Naturally, hard-hearted policies and statements do not help the situation as many Hispanics are here legally and they are assumed guilty, at times and in certain contexts, of being here illegally. We cannot lump all Hispanics into the illegal category, or even say they are the main problem. In fact, most illegal immigrants are those who have overstayed their visas. Regardless, in every poll and study I have found, education ranks at the top of the list of concerns of the Hispanic community. Simply, they want the same opportunities their more affluent white counterparts have- namely, choice. In fact, I can make a great argument that it is the liberals who are racist in this area by denying through school choice the very opportunities they enjoy. This is like supporting civil rights…provided they stay on the plantation- the arm chair liberals who live in gated, all-white communities (think the Kennedy clan). And so it is with educational reform. To liberals, the answer is not opportunity through choice and helping parents with that choice, but spending more money and feigning concern. Choice and opportunity are two winning arguments with respect to the Hispanic community and would likely do more to convert Hispanics to conservative causes and the Republican Party than immigration reform.
And one final thought. It is one thing to rail against the status quo and the liberal answers to education. It is quite another to actually have alternatives. Simply being against Obamacare, for example, means very little if at the end of the day Republicans and conservatives have no alternative solutions to an admitted problem. Piecemeal solutions like tort reform in the context of health care solve only a tiny fraction of the problem. Likewise, school choice programs address only a part of the educational reform solutions, albeit certainly a large part, but it is only one piece of the overall puzzle.
In part 2, this writer will tackle one of Obama’s second term agenda items- mandatory pre-K education. As will become apparent going forward, it will become evident that it is Obama and all liberals who are barking up the wrong educational tree.
Next: Part 2- Mandatory Pre-K and Head Start