I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A VERY Rare Disagreement

Look, you guys know I love Matt DiCarlo. I mean, I LOVE the guy. He and Bruce Baker are the two safe ports in a storm of reformy pseudo-research; I'd be lost without both. And I'm really flattered Matt added me to his blogroll, which I only noticed today.

So it pains me to take great exception to this post:
I’m always uncomfortable with personal accusations in our education debate, and they come from both “sides.” For instance, I don’t like hearing accusations that market-based reformers are “profiteers.” The implication is that these people seek to dismantle or otherwise alter the public education system for their own economic advantage. 
It’s true that a significant proportion of market-based reformers support various forms of privatization, such as vouchers, and that this support is in part based on the power of competition and the profit motive to increase efficiency. It’s also true that there are some who stand to profit personally off certain policy changes. But the overwhelming majority of people on the “reform side” have no financial skin in the game, and even those who do might actually still care about education and children. You can and should disagree with them, if you’re so inclined, but accusing them of being motivated solely by personal financial gain, or even implying as much, could well be unfair, but, more importantly, it contributes nothing of substance to the debate. 
On the flip side of that coin, however, is the endlessly-repeated “we care about children, not adults” narrative. This little nugget is a common message from the market-based reform crowd. Most recently, Ben Austin, head of a pro-charter school group, was on a panel at NBC’s Education Nation, and repeated the talking point several times. In fact, there’s now a small confederation of advocacy groups nominally based on the “children over adults” accusation – Students First, Stand for Children, etc. [emphasis mine]
Now, you all know I'm down with paragraph #3. And I can understand Matt's squeamishness with calling people out for their motivations. But at this point in the debate, if we're going to be honest, I really see no other choice. Granted, not all of the corporate reformers are directly profiting from "reform" - but that doesn't mean they don't have a personal economic interest in the outcome.

As David Sirota points out in this seminal piece from Salon, there are three ways the Billionaire Boys Club profits from "reform." Yes, there's the promise of a direct infusion of taxpayer cash from a $650 billion sector; folks like Joel Klein and the titans of the testing industry are smacking their chops at the thought.

But in some ways, the more important and lucrative benefits of "reform" are found in the busting of unions and the diversion of the country's attention away from the true causes of poverty and income inequity.

The union busting is becoming particularly brazen. Jonah Edelman, self-satisfied jerk that he is, couldn't help but brag that this was the entire point of his little adventure in Illinois: plutocrats funding backroom deals to get teachers to work more for less money. His coup plays perfectly into the world-view of folks like Steve Brill, who lay most of the nation's education problems at the feet of the unions.

But why does Brill suggest working with them in the end of his tome? Why let the Randi Weingartens run things if their unions are directly responsible for so much misery? Only one reason: he and his wealthy fellow travelers need a villain. Heaven forbid all of their dreams come true and they have to put up or shut up; if that ever happens and the inevitable failure of "reform" follows, people might start looking their way for the real causes of the mess we are in.

This is, to my mind, the most valuable benefit of "reform" for our Galtian overlords: it masks the conversation this country should have started years ago about how we continue to allow chronic poverty to fester in the greatest economic power on Earth. It blames "paid-for-breathing teachers" and "failing schools" for poverty while completely ignoring the massive inequity our political system has guaranteed for decades. It blames our deficits on public workers for having the audacity to demand decent health care and modest pensions while ignoring the historically low tax rates the wealthiest among us pay.

The fact is that this is all a huge distraction. How do I know? Simple: we all know the "reform" these people are proposing will not work. All you have to do is read Matt's blog every day (and Bruce's) for all the evidence you will ever need.

Which brings us back to topic of motivation. The people who are funding the corporate "reform" movement are not stupid. They are all quite capable of ascertaining the facts in evidence regarding education reform. They should all be able to see though the facile arguments of the charter cheerleaders and believers in the Merit Pay Fairy. This ain't rocket science - I'm a music teacher, for Pete's sake, and even I get.

Why don't they get it? Why do they insist on pushing an agenda that Matt and I and everyone else with a lick of sense and a modest understanding of math know is contradicted by the evidence?

I think Upton Sinclair put it best:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
Matt, I do think you are one of our most valuable players. But on this point, you are just dead wrong. These people may genuinely care about kids, but they care about preserving the real status quo much, much more.

Let me put it this way:

Do the hedge fund managers and multi-billionaires behind the corporate "reform" movement want to see kids lifted out of poverty and succeed in school?

Of course they do.

Are they willing to seriously consider instituting pre-Reagan tax levels, establishing a rigorous regulation system, and removing all traces of corporate money from our political system to finally tackle endemic poverty and make that dream a reality?

You tell me.


Anonymous said...

How about a little Sinclair Lewis? Babbit doesn't seem that bad now: "He [Babbitt] chanted 'One of the boasts of Zenith is that we pay our teachers adequately,' that was because he had read the statement in the Advocate-Times. Himself, he could not have given the average salary of teachers in Zenith or anywhere else."

Duke said...

That's really great. Makes me want to read it again.