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, September 30, 2014

The Fundamental Flaw In the Reformy Argument

Peter Greene, blogging machine that he is, points us to a new video from the fine reformy folks at the American Enterprise Institute.

Greene dispatches much of Michael Q. McShane's perambulating argument in his post, so I won't repeat it here. Take a minute or two to read him instead; it's worth it.

I'll also point you to this paper by Bruce Baker for a summary of the "sizable and growing body of rigorous empirical literature [that] validates that state school finance reforms can have substantive, positive effects on student outcomes, including reductions in outcome disparities or increases in overall outcome levels." McShane's contention that we have spent too much money on education and we don't have results to show for it is contradicted by empirical evidence.

There's not anything I could add to either Peter's or Bruce's pieces; I do, however, want to make a larger point about what I see as the fundamental flaw in the argument for reformy solutions to economic deprivation. Here, in McShane's own words, is as good a summation of this reasoning as you will find:
Did you know that Americans without a high school diploma, compared to college graduates, are three times more likely to be unemployed, and even those with high school diplomas average fifty percent less in annual income than those with college degrees? But the gap between the educational “haves” and “have-nots” is vast and only growing wider. 
Take Jennifer, a fourth grader born into the poorest 20 percent. Without a college degree, she only has a 5 percent chance of reaching the top, compared to a 45 percent chance of staying in poverty. With a college degree, she’s more likely to make it to the top quintile than she is to remain in the bottom. A quality education makes an enormous difference.
McShane jauntily saunters through a school as he makes his case. Mike, let me ask you something:

Do the hard-working people who clean that building every day need a college degree?

Perhaps, following the taping of this rather exhausting video, Mike felt the need for some refreshment. After he finished his lunch, who do you suppose washed his dishes? Who picked the arugula for his salad? Who mows the lawn outside AEI's offices? Who stocks the shelves at the mall where Mike buys his denim shirts?

There are millions of people in America who do hard, often dirty, sometimes dangerous jobs that are necessary. As Barbara Ehrenreich documents in her indispensable Nickled and Dimed, these people are the backbone of the American workforce -- and yet they barely make enough to survive, let alone thrive.

McShane would have us believe that giving the Jennifers of the world a chance to break out of the mean and nasty life of the working poor is the solution to our income inequity. The problem is that if we send all of the Jennifers to college, it won't change the needs of the American economy. We'd still need people to empty the bedpans and load the garbage trucks and pick the vegetables and sweep the floors and do all of the other back-breaking but necessary work America needs to get done.

I am all for social mobility: Jennifer should not be consigned to a life of working poverty simply because her parents were. But somebody has to wash Mike's dishes; somebody has to clean Mike's office. Let's at least be honest enough to admit this.

We can, of course, have an argument as to whether reforminess actually fosters socioeconomic mobility. Personally, I think anyone who believes that education "choice," in its current incarnation, will help more kids break into the middle class is fooling themselves. I've often remarked on how charter schools love to put on airs of preppydom: it's as if the reformies believe some school uniforms and a few college pennants on the walls will magically wipe away hundreds of years of institutional racism and systemic income inequity.

Sorry, but I just don't see how a "no excuses" style of schooling does anything to help children living in poverty acquire the social capital they need to advance up the capitalist ladder. But even if I'm wrong, reforminess doesn't address the larger problem: people doing necessary work are not sharing in the productivity gains of our economic system, largely because most of those gains have accumulated at the very top.

The fundamental flaw in the reformy education argument is that it conflates social mobility with income inequity. These are separate issues, and while reforminess most likely won't increase social mobility, it certainly won't solve income inequity.

Until that happy day when we have robots doing all the difficult work for us (dystopian fears fueled by science fiction aside), we need millions of people doing millions of tough, dirty, hazardous jobs. These people don't require college degrees: they need better-than-living wages, cheap health care, good housing, safe communities, and, yes, good educational opportunities so their children can advance if they so desire. Of course, that means others who are higher up in the economic order might see their children drop down. But you know something?

Maybe those people wouldn't worry so much about that if they knew that their children, so long as they work hard and play by the rules, will never have to worry about being able to afford to go to the doctor, will always have a good roof over their heads, and can retire at an age where they can still enjoy life and spend time with their families and in pursuits other than work.

Maybe if the stakes weren't so high, middle class parents wouldn't feel getting their children into college, whether those children had the talent and desire or not, was a matter of life and death.

We have enough money to do this. We can take care of everyone and still have plenty left over to incentivize capitalists to do their thing. But as long as our national conversation on education is dominated by people who, willingly or otherwise, can't see the difference between social mobility and income inequity, we will never muster the political will to do what needs to be done.

One more thing: when Peter posted this video, I got this nagging feeling I had seen something like this before. And then it hit me...

Hate to admit it, but you have to be of a "certain age" to get the joke.

1 comment:

Giuseppe said...

Though Paul Krugman was commenting on Jim DeMint of the Heritage Foundation his comment would also apply to the American Enterprise Institute or any of these libertarian sink holes ("think" tanks): "Paul Krugman says that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is taking "the think out of the think tank" and turning the Heritage Foundation into a "purely political institution" by accepting a job as its president." There was never any think at these so called right wing libertarian Ayn Randish pro corporate think tanks. It's all about ideology, privatization, deregulation and catering to the whims of the corporations and the top 1%.