The Auction Begins
H.L. Mencken once observed that elections are advance auctions of stolen goods. That was in the 1920s when there was far less stolen wealth and far less to steal. Today, the booming economy has induced the political classes to abandon even the pretense of curbing spending and to become full-throated, plundering auctioneers of the people’s wealth.
We expect it of Al Gore, a man who has made hatred of property rights the centerpiece of his public ideology. His book Earth in the Balance inspired the Unabomber to murderous frenzies, but unlike militias after the Oklahoma City bombing, Gore has been spared any moral culpability for those who have died at the hands of the Luddite left.
But what can be said of George W. Bush, who began the auction even while the Republican primaries were still being contested? Recall that in New York his campaign ran a series of ads accusing John McCain of not having voted for enough federal spending on breast cancer research. Bush later distanced himself from the ads, but the whole incident was a bad omen.
Now comes his education proposal. The only "plan" a principled Republican would advance is one to de-fund the Department of Education and get the federal government out of the schools entirely. But the headline after Bush’ s speech was unambiguous: "Bush Proposes $2.9 Billion in Effort to Bolster Teaching." Or to put it in terms of a Soviet-style 5-year plan, he wants an additional $13.4 billion in new federal spending.
He was quickly outbid by Gore, who raised the price by an additional $100 billion over 10 years. The message was clear: Gore is more generous and plans for the longer term. "I’m not competing on money," protested Bush. So be it: Sold to the man in the earth-tone suit!
Why is it that Republicans make the same mistake in every election cycle? Their comparative advantage, even if only from a rhetorical point of view, is that they supposedly favor less government. Why, then, do they insist on competing with Democrats for how many taxpayer dollars they can channel through Washington? If voters want someone to strengthen the Department of Education, they will not be voting for Bush; they’ll vote for the authentic socialist, not the sunshine socialist, in the race.
Now, it’s true that Bush invoked some pieties about decentralization. "Those of us at the table know that reforms come from the bottom up. And therefore, we’ve got to align authority and responsibility at the local level. It’s impossible for the federal government to dictate reform." Experience and logic show, however, that what the government spends, it also controls. More spending means more centralization, no matter what rhetoric it’s wrapped in.
Besides, Bush claims that his program is better because it demands more "accountability" from local public schools. The institution to which you are accountable is the institution that is in control. That is to say, the federal government will "dictate reform," contrary to his own promises.
There’s even reason to be wary of Bush’s underlying theory. "Education excellence starts with people knowing that every child can be a smart child." Now, it is fashionable to redefine "smart" in tricky new ways, so that everyone becomes smart by definition. In this way, hoodlums have "street smarts," rap singers have "rhythm smarts," and kids who fritter away hours at the arcade instead of reading have "spatial-relations smarts" based on excellent hand-eye coordination.
The implication is that all children are equally educable, an assumption that lies at the root of nearly all educational practice today. In real life, some kids learn more and faster than others; there are huge gulfs that separate them. If radically dissimilar kids are thrown together in the same learning environment, the quick ones are going to suffer so long as teachers spend their time and energy trying to prove that there is no difference among the innate intellectual abilities of children.
That is essentially what has happened in Texas, where half the kids spend half the day learning about recycling while the other half are being drilled on basic English and math skills. So long as the overall scores show aggregate improvement, the theory goes, we are on the right track. Disaggregate the scores, however, and you find that actual smart kids are not reaching their potential while kids with fewer abilities are driven to frustration and anger at the system.
Such a theory and practice imposed at the federal level would spell disaster. Despite his protests and some seemingly good ideas — like permitting people to save more for education tax free — the result of Bush’s program will be a nationalized curriculum to monitor all schools at the federal level. That is especially true of his idea to extend more credits to charter schools, which, for all their present flaws, have until now enjoyed some measure of autonomy from DC.
In fact, there’s evidence that Bush actually favors such a program. He has suggested that all states require standardized tests in reading and math, grades three through eight, while any state that refused to do so would lose five percent of federal education money. That may sound like a small amount, but states will quickly comply.
Then there is the matter of vouchers. Bush won’t use the word but rather speaks of making education "portable." Students in failing schools would get money to attend a private school, a system that sets up a range of perverse incentives and threatens to hook private schools into a national system of control.
While the two candidates "debate" how much of our money they would like to blow on education, the real cutting edge of education is being pursued by the growing ranks of home schoolers. Colleges are discovering that these kids are universally more prepared for higher education, both in skills and, much more importantly, in their attitude and character. A large part of that is due to the fact that these students are NOT in the public schools and thereby avoid the negative socialization that comes with being in the clutches of our civic masters, and their beloved young ruffians.
Why has the success of homeschooling evaded the attention of national politicians? Part of the reason is that education is not actually the purpose of public schools, and hasn’t been for nearly fifty years. As a recent New York Times study showed, the main concern of the educational establishment has been the maintenance of demographic heterogeneity in schools. The motive force behind school reform has not been to achieve excellence but to find some way of realizing egalitarianism without overt coercion.
The only way out is to challenge the whole idea of federal educational policy itself. If we really care about good schools, federal spending and control must stop immediately. But demanding that is the equivalent of either calling off Mencken’s auction or refusing to participate in it altogether. And neither party seems prepared to give up their place at the most lucrative auction house in the world.