Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Christie and the Schools

Ask a hundred people how they think a school should be run, and you’re likely to get a hundred different answers. Some parents want more counselors, some want a greater nursing staff, some want particular sports, some want co-curricular activities, some want salary cuts. Everyone assigns a different priority to all these things. Whatever gets cut, no matter how much, people are going to complain.

Parents pay taxes; they want what’s best for their kids; and (so far as I know) they’re more or less forced to send their kids to their local school. They want to milk it, and I don’t blame them. As long as they’re only paying a fraction of the cost involved in putting their kids through school, it’s understandable. I’m sure every parent would like to see her child’s school stuffed with well-educated and well-paid staff, and activities of every kind. Don’t we all?

Well, maybe not all of us. A taxpaying non-parent’s priorities are probably more like “getting my taxes lowered” than “paying for other people’s kids’ government schooling.” I know I’d rather keep the 40% of my property tax than fork it over to the government to be disposed of politically in the school system. Maybe it’s harsh, but it’s true. Public-educated kids are caught in a political crossfire between government, taxpayers, and unions. Everyone has a stake in getting what they want (everyone wants lower taxes; politicians want reelection; unions want power) and we all have to use political means to get it. It’s an unending political tug of war, and the primary casualties are the very people the system is supposed to work for: parents, students, and teachers.

The other week, I attended a board of education meeting. The board announced budget cuts and cutbacks on nursing staff and counseling staff. Many parents were angry over these things, and called for administrative cuts. There was a lot of yelling, finger-pointing, a few speeches, and little good news. It was like a highlight reel of everything that’s wrong with public education.

Since parents believe their children are entitled to an education the government believes it is its job to provide it (two very flawed premises, by the way), any mention of privatizing/deregulating education isn’t even on the table. But the governor wants to address a budget deficit. Wonderful. Since market solutions are unimaginable to most people, the popular alternatives are to [continue to] tax the rich or to cut funding to schools. For anyone who wants less government, the answer is obvious.

I don’t have any faith in the education bureaucracy being able to redistribute their remaining funding in a way that pleases everybody (as I said, everyone involved has her own idea of how it should be), so there will definitely be many losers after it’s all said and done, and the schools will suffer for it. All the more reason to remove the government from education completely. As a parent, do you really want your kid’s education to be so vulnerable to political waves like this? Should every public teacher in the state have to quake in her boots every time some politician sneezes?

No, but that’s the way it is. The problem here is not that Chris Christie is cutting school funding, it’s that some politician has the power to cut the funds to begin with. Put any special interest group in place of parents and the NJEA, and that group would vilify the governor and decry the cuts just as much (or to whatever extent its political power permitted). Wouldn’t you?

Even though I’m tacitly in Christie’s corner on this one, I recognize that that’s only because his position (so far) leans in the direction of less government, and that’s all I’m interested in. That's an important point. See, though I don’t think I should even have to be bothered with any of it, I still feel I have a stake in the outcome. Politics has a way of doing just that- taking people who ordinarily wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) give a damn and roping them in, forcing them to fight for the least offensive political exploitation of their money, time, and labor; things that shouldn’t be anyone else's to begin with. In fact, the more I hear about this battle, the more I think that neither Chris Christie nor the NJEA are any worse than the other. Maybe the budget cuts are neither good nor bad. Maybe they’re just political maneuvers like anything else, no matter how they’re portrayed to the public by the two warring sides.

The point is that this whole seemingly unsolvable mess is a natural and predictable consequence of the government’s presence in the field. Private school teachers (and parents, and students), on the other hand, are totally insulated from all this political warring. They look upon this and shake their heads, wondering why anyone would want to put up with that kind of garbage.

Then, they turn around and quietly return to work. The rest of the education establishment should be so lucky.

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