Thursday, August 5, 2010

Last Night's Education Payoff

When the recession hit, the administration where I work (private school) confronted the whole staff and warned that we may be getting pay cuts- either those, or layoffs. It wasn't because someone messed up and ran the school into the ground financially, and it wasn't a result of mismanagement on our part. It was the result of forces beyond our control, and it was very simple: We're in trouble and if the money's not there, this is what will happen. No running to the government for favors. It's called living in reality.

Last night, a bankrupt Senate that can't balance a checkbook gave $26 billion to state governments that also can't balance a checkbook, $10 billion of which went for "teacher retention." Where did the money come from? They did what they always do; they kicked the can down the road. The money is supposedly coming from closing some corporate tax loophole and will, it is said, be paid back over ten years. This is called living in a fantasy, and it should bother a whole lot of people.

It is true that the money will prevent teacher layoffs, but that's only because public school wages do not operate in a market. They're mandated by contract between unions and government. This is where the corruption starts. The politicians join the unions in maintaining the Three Great Fictions: that American education is the best in the world, that student performance is a function of how much money is thrown at it, and that we would all be doomed without a government monopoly over the school system.

The Politicians

The primary skill of a politician is to get elected, and the primary skill of an incumbent is to get reelected. They like to have blocs of people they can count on for votes, so they steer money towards schools. It's a nice exchange; votes for money. Last night's bill was nothing more than a political bribe.

The Unions

The primary goal of the unions is their own survival. They get politicians votes in exchange for tax money, which they use to lavish teachers with good pay and unbelievable benefits. If the money stops coming, however, the house of cards collapses. To make sure that doesn't happen, they can get always get more funding in one of two ways: 1) Threatening politicians to withdraw their support for upcoming elections, and 2) selling the public their fake sob story about how, without wage hikes, the kids will suffer. Union bosses also get to look like the heroes when they distribute the cash to the teachers.

The Teachers

The teachers are the pawns in the unions' political game, and many of them know it. The ones who don't, however, seem to be under the impression that the union looks out for their best interests, and are happy to sell their vote for pay hikes. Those same teachers are the ones who believe their compensation is unfair. But the politics of union negotiations keeps teacher compensation above market (whether they recognize it or not), and many teachers will raise hell at the slightest hint of their earnings possibly getting pared back to something more in touch with fiscal reality.

The Public

In spite of how increased spending has produced little more than higher taxes and test scores that have been flatlining for the last forty years, somehow the public still believes The Three Fictions. There's probably nothing for which the average taxpayer is willing to open his wallet than education. There's almost no recognition of the fact that teaching is a highly political job and the fact that the public school system is little more than a perpetual motion machine of politics. The students graduate knowing exactly what the government wants them to know.

So what happens when the federal government, which has no idea whatsoever about how to deal with its own problems, showers the states with billions of dollars? If history is any indication, test scores will remain unaffected, the political grip on the system will be once more tightened, and taxes will go up (that bit about getting the money by closing a corporate tax loophole is an illusion- when taxes on businesses go up, the businesses simply raise their prices accordingly and we pay for it anyway). But the money will come from somewhere- if not from the municipalities, then from the state. If not from the state, then from the feds. If not from from the feds, then people start losing reelection. And nobody wants that.

Much of this sickens me. I'm angry at the democrats for passing the bill, I'm angry at the republicans for faking their outrage over something they would have favored if Bush were in the White House, and I'm angry that the people being taken advantage of have no idea what's going on and probably wouldn't believe it no matter how clearly it were spelled out to them. It bothers me when the bad guys win.

The solution is to dispel The Three Fictions and shake our faith in the government's ability to serve our interests through education. Hopefully, at least some of us will remember the true cost of last night's bill/payoff come November.

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