In my travels among education policy-makers I am constantly amazed at the arrogance of some public educators who, unfortunately, comprise a large portion of what passes for industry leadership. There are two recent examples among many I could cite. In one, the Austin ISD Board rejected proposals from “outside” entities to manage woefully under-performing schools. Board members said they want the district to find ways “on its own” to fix the problem, and teachers’ groups were fearful that a successful private school solution would serve as a model for more widespread parental school choice, anathema to them. The other example comes from recent comments by several members of the Texas State Board of Education along with Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, to the point that people who do not have children in public schools should not have a role in education policy as members of the SBOE. The latter example flies in the face of all philosophical grounding of our constitutional basis in the truth of objective reality and the rule of law, and both examples are evidence of the arrogance of the current system in the face of massive failure to serve our children.
Dr. Paul T. Hill is Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. In his excellent 1998 book, Fixing Urban Schools, he outlines the roots of disagreement among school reform advocates as between intrinsic and extrinsic reforms. Simply put, intrinsic reformers are those totally protective of the prerogatives of the education establishment and highly skeptical of any external reform motivation, particularly economic. Extrinsic reformers, on the other hand, are typically not professional public educators and do not believe that public education can “heal thyself” without significant external motivation, particularly from reforms that introduce competition and “marketization” of the system.
No doubt there are deep seated ideological and cultural groundings for these respective approaches that in many ways transcend education policy, and they surface in almost every policy forum in which I participate, bringing me to one more example of arrogance. At a recent policy meeting of an education reform organization to which I belong, it was suggested to me, as an extrinsic reformer, that the burden of proof for our reform proposals is on us to show that they would not work to the detriment of the stakeholders in the status quo. With this attitude prevalent even among many who call themselves reformers, bold systemic public education reform and hope for our under-served children in failing schools are still pipe dreams.
An Instructive Health Care Survey
In February of this year, the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce
surveyed Texas voters on their attitudes on health care issues. The results were instructive to me,
but maybe not in the same way that they were to the TABCC. For instance, health care, along
with jobs and the economy, was the most important issue facing the families of those surveyed
and the most important thing the voters would change about health is the cost. About 62%
believe the most important health care issue facing the Texas Legislature is holding down the
cost of health care. Not surprising, but I was struck by the degree to which the respondents
assign to government the responsibility for controlling these costs. Voters rank government
regulations and the pharmaceutical companies as the top two sources of responsibility for health
care costs, but only 5% believe that patients have the primary responsibility and 4% believe
employees do, significantly less than doctors, hospitals, and HMO’s. Over 65% of respondents
report that their employer pays more than half their health insurance premiums. Am I wrong in
discerning a direct correlation between the perception of responsibility for cost control and the
fact that most patients/employees are covered by their employers? I think not. I have said before
that I believe we have come too far down the road toward leading our citizens to view health care
and insurance as a “right” primarily financed by someone else. We can begin to restore balance
in responsibility by phasing employers out of the business of providing employee coverage, by
providing full deductibility of premiums for individuals, portability of coverage, and full
authorization of medical savings accounts.
“Let’s Have An Argument”
I am borrowing the title of this essay from one written by David Brooks of The Weekly Standard
in August 2001, wherein he chides the Bush administration for being too defensive in policy
initiatives and “strategically crippled” in pursuit of the centerpiece of the Bush Presidency,
compassionate conservatism. Of course, this was pre 9-11 and a different Presidency. It would
be difficult to characterize Bush’s leadership in the war on terrorism as anything but masterful, at
least until his April 4 message on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, about which more below.
Having said this, there have been serious mistakes lately. Last month, I mentioned the steel
import tariffs and the farm bill. These were damaging enough, but now we have a whopper—the
campaign finance reform bill. If there will ever be a case made for a veto, this was it, not only
on constitutional grounds, which are obvious, but because the legislation is contrary to the
principles on which the President campaigned and won, against the primary supporter of the
In September 2000 I wrote briefly of the “end of democracy” debate, which is primarily about
the undermining of the integrity of our republican system by an over-active judiciary.
Unfortunately, the new campaign finance law does further damage, not only by deferring to the
judiciary on a clear constitutional issue, but by its terms constricting issue advocacy and thereby
adding a measure of incumbency protection.
It has been suggested rather harshly that the approach of the Bush administration to domestic
policy legislation is, in many respects, “intellectually dishonest”. That may be a strong
indictment, but it seems to me that the approach does ask that we believe that people cannot be
expected to understand the logic and merit of conservative public policy in the light of
Democratic/liberal/media driven efforts to demagogue and discredit it. It further assumes that
this liberal cabal has won in the market for ideas and that the electorate cannot be expected to cut
through the demagoguery to know what is the public interest and who represents it. I strongly
disagree and, even if I’m wrong, the fight and the argument are worthy of the risk.
A “Blink” for Our Clarity
In the glow of his State of the Union speech a little over two months ago, it is difficult not to feel
that President Bush’s April 4 message on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict dulled the sharp edge of
our moral clarity in the war on terrorism. On one hand, it is impossible for the world’s only
superpower not to be engaged in the Middle East; on the other, it clearly works to the advantage
of our terrorist enemies (the “evil ones”) for the United States to be so engaged, particularly
when it appears we are according terrorism some measure of moral equivalence with the
civilized response to it. The unconditional response to terrorism in the wake of 9-11 has been
somewhat compromised and our mission confused by our apparent return to a “peace process”
which has never had credibility. We had better realize that Israel is but another front in the same
war, and act accordingly.
The SAT, Diversity, and Cultural Literacy
Bending to criticism of cultural bias from the University of California, the College Board is
planning significant changes to the SAT college admissions test. Evidently, the “diversity
police” at Berkeley have determined that the test is biased against minorities, an argument that
has been raised many times before, but which has reached new intensity in the wake of
Proposition 209 outlawing racial preferences in admissions. No one should be fooled by the
cynical motivation here. It is purely a circumvention of the ban on racial preferences in the name
of “diversity”. In fact, it is a flawed approach that will allow a more “comprehensive” review of
an applicant’s background in addition to the SAT changes, which are likely to eliminate or
reduce the analogy section of the verbal portion of the test in lieu of a “fairer” means of testing
literacy, particularly cultural literacy, the means by which we communicate our shared history
and values. As E. D. Hirsch made clear in his groundbreaking 1987 book, Cultural Literacy,
these changes will further impoverish our young people in an area in which American children
have shown consistent decline over the past forty years.