Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Education is not Euvoluntary: Obscure Constituents Edition

Everyone gets to channel her little inner Pollyanna from time to time. When it's my turn, I indulge the fantasy that education is a mutual discovery endeavor, where bright, eager adults share what they've learned about the world with curious, engaged youngsters (defendants if you will).

A little introspection puts baby in the corner. I'm not cynical about the classroom relationship between teacher and pupil. I'm not cynical about the office-hours relationship between parents and teachers. I'm not even all that cynical about the disciplinary relationship between the principals and students. I am cynical however about all those relationships we never see in toto (no, I won't embed the smash 1982 hit Africa here; Joe Pesci will have to tide you over).

It was bad enough prior to NCLB that two states, California and Texas were close enough to monopsony buyers of standardized textbooks (and had strong political interests in their contents) that civics and history textbooks (and the associated curricula) were next to useless. It was bad enough that religious elites felt they had some say in how science education was conducted that they attempted out ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. It was bad enough that vapor-prone Victorian dowagers took to the voting booth to pull books from library shelves (and occasionally to pitch them onto pyres). It was bad enough even when people became convinced of the unlimited veracity of the "I pay your salary therefore I have final say over what you teach" model of teacher accountability. But now? Now we can't even clearly trace all of the constituents.

Education is a rent-seeking free-for-all. Somehow, children have become a extra-superior good, where the wealthier we become, the greater the share of wealth is consumed either by or on the behalf of kids [citation needed]. I don't necessarily see this as dysfunctional. I'm a parent and my daughter is the apple of my knees, the bees in my eye. I'm not ashamed to want what's best for her. But that doesn't imply I'm comfortable with outlandish development contracts for giant sports arenas or the feeding frenzy that constitutes school nutrition programs or salubriously generous pensions for an alarmingly corpulent administrative leviathan. I worry yet more about what's to come.

Look people. Grandparents dote. It's what they do. In the US, we've got piles upon piles of grandparent-aged (voting!) Baby Boomers with their hands on the sluiceboxes of tax monies. Political elites have to convince them of the grievous need for National Security (interpret this as foreign entanglement after foreign entanglement), though to be fair folks born before, say, 1965 grew up with "duck and cover" as an ordinary part of their daily lexicon. But nobody has to do much convincing when it comes to blindly pouring the wealth of others towards the nominally noble goal of Providing For The Future of our children. The personal cost of voting in favor of "educational reform" approaches zero, which implies that flowery words rather than hard results will dominate voters' minds. Which also means that the jackals can sup alongside the swine with impunity come slopping time. Rent-seeking is the natural companion of politics. The joint product of a) putting education in the hands of the political process and b) elevating the importance of the classroom is c) institutionalized corruption.

"For the children" is the watchword for moral hazard.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?