September 05, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher #17: Big Government vs. Big Government

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Esteemed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Big Government vs. Big Government

Dear Bob:

I hope you have a bit of time to read and consider this and get back with me. I'd like to see what you have to say about the issues I'll raise.

Conservatives oppose big government. Most conservatives would agree with that statement without reservation. Perhaps they shouldn't, for many conservatives seem willing to embrace the stultifying power of government when it comes to educational issues such as mandatory, high-stakes tests or vouchers, among others.

"But these are truly important issues," they say. "We have to do it for the children," they say. Does that sound familiar? Aren't those statements exactly what leftists say to justify the unjustifiable?

Indiana has embraced the most ambitious voucher program in American history, and conservatives around the nation are enthusiastically applauding. They shouldn't. In many ways, they don't realize that they are supporting big government at its worst.

A good article at (here) deals with a real problem that always crops up whenever government is involved in anything: Red tape and regulations that inevitably "fundamentally transform" what works into what doesn't. Go here to see a brief but disturbing summary of the rules and unfunded mandates being imposed on any Indiana private school accepting voucher money. Ronald Reagan was right. The most horrifying words in the English language are truly: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." By all means, read these brief articles and then return; I'll wait. Oh yes, and as you read, remember that Gov. Mitch Daniels is a Republican, ostensibly a conservative.

Do you see what I mean? One of the great advantages of private education has always been its freedom from governmental regulation. While there is no convincing, continuing evidence that private education is uniformly superior to public education, I can certainly understand its attraction. But if by accepting government money, private education becomes indistinguishable from public education, what's the point? Who doesn't understand that government money always comes with conditions, or do some just prefer not to notice in order to get their hands on taxpayer loot?

If the money for vouchers didn't come directly out of public education funds, I would still have concerns on philosophical grounds alone. I spend an average of $2000 a year on school supplies, and I'm sure you do about the same. I currently get a $250 federal tax credit, which is better than a poke in the eye with a pointed stick, but not that much. Due to the economy, our district has reduced the supply budget by 60% this year, but at least we don't have to lay anyone off—for now. Of course, that also means that we're not getting any raises in the foreseeable future, so I'm going to be spending more and making less. It's a good thing our state doesn't have a voucher program, for it if did, we'd surely be seeing mass layoffs with all of the problems that implies. I know that in your district as well as mine, "doing more with less" is nothing new; it's standard operating procedure day in and day out.

I've often written about how alarmists rattling on about the abject failure of the public schools are all too often taken at face value. Few stop to apply a bit of common sense, which should tell them that most schools are actually doing very well indeed. There are, of course, some individual schools and some entire school districts that are truly terrible, but those districts and schools tend to be in Democrat controlled enclaves such as California, Washington DC and Detroit. In such places, the condition of the schools is merely a symptom of the complete corruption of the political and social system that drags down everything and everyone.

It is these places—thankfully a minority—that are probably the strongest argument for public school alternatives. The citizens of these failed polities may be immune to constitutional government and free enterprise, their schools impervious to professional teaching, discipline and management that does not enrich cronies or support a political machine. Even actual (Detroit) or imminent (California) economic collapse cannot divert the members of such recipient, victim classes from their downward spiral. Yet, vouchers aren't the answer for them either.

It is our civic duty, where government ignores the consent of the governed, where it becomes a criminal enterprise, where it seizes powers it is not authorized to have to reform it. If a school doesn't work, fix it! That's the American way. Running away is for Monty Python.

I've always felt that the public schools exist, in part, because we need common, civic education. Our future adults need not only practical knowledge but a belief in the ideals of our democracy, of our unique and indispensable American culture based in the respect of the life of the individual and of his equality before the law. If we abandon even part of a generation, if they don't embrace American ideals, we ensure division and chaos.

Even in schools where a generally leftist philosophy controls the faculty, all is not lost. Even some leftists can teach professionally without constantly injecting socialism into the curriculum. But even in schools where socialism is an integral part of the curriculum, it's worthwhile to remember an old aphorism, attributed to a wide variety of sources: "One father is worth a hundred schoolmasters."

I see my students less than five hours a week for about 180 days—a part of one year of their lives. While I know I have a positive influence on many of them I have no doubt that compared with the influence of their parents, my influence is small indeed. This is particularly true where they have engaged, serious parents who accept their parental role rather than trying to be adult buddies to their children.

Engaged parents know that there is no such thing as a right never to be exposed to thoughts and ideas with which they might disagree. Where children are exposed to misguided ideas in school, where teachers cross the line between imparting the best professional information their discipline has to offer into political indoctrination, parents have a wonderful opportunity for discussion and the presentation of convincing ideas grounded in common sense and an appreciation for American democracy. Of course, this requires parents who see themselves—as I do—as the primary, life-long teachers of their children. I have my students on loan from their parents for a short time and for very specific purposes. I consider it an honor and a great responsibility, a sacred trust.

Conservatives should work to ensure the proper educational opportunity for all children. Isn't it self-styled elitists who send their children to "elite" private schools, caring nothing for the quality of education of others? Isn't this anti-democratic? Doesn't it contribute to civic division and discord? Does Mr. Obama, a product of elite private schools, support American values or the politics of class warfare and the abuse of his authority?

Private schools are expensive and vouchers cover only a fraction of the yearly tuition. If vouchers are truly a balm for educational failings, why not fully subsidize private education for all who might choose it? Conservatives understand, unlike leftists, that it would completely bankrupt the public schools, so vouchers remain a political token, which only wounds the public schools, allowing them to limp along.

Let's not forget the Constitution, for most private schools are religious schools, and whenever a sectarian school is involved, the Constitution is violated. Vouchers aren't for truly elite schools; they're for people who need not ask about the cost of tuition and who summer on Martha's Vineyard with the Obamas. Vouchers are for local private schools, most often sectarian schools, schools whose identity and practice is inescapably religious.

Some voucher proponents dishonestly work up various schemes whereby public money is given to citizens first, then to sectarian schools, claiming that since the money wasn't given directly to private schools, the Constitution isn't involved. Of course it is. Pretending otherwise is a leftist ploy in the grand tradition of Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of "is." It's fundamentally dishonest and conservatives should have no part of it. If conservatives truly support the Constitution, there can be no picking and choosing: isn't that what leftists do?

It is certainly harder to reform a troubled school or school district than leaving it, but that's what American ideals call us to do, unless we really want to create a two-tiered society of those steeped in American values and those indoctrinated in the culture of victimhood, eternal grievance, all-encompassing political correctness and absolute governmental control over every aspect of life. That's a recipe for conflict and the decline, perhaps even the fall, of America. And it all begins with something as simple and seemingly harmless, perhaps even positive, as vouchers.

Well, what do you think? There is no danger of our state going for vouchers in the foreseeable future, and I don't think that's true of yours either, but I'm looking forward to hearing about what you have to say. Take care and give your lovely wife my best.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at September 5, 2011 09:42 PM

It is illuminating that you label a program that attempts takes a degree of control away from government as a program that is big government 'at its worst'.

You address the mandates imposed on the voucher program, but why do you ignore who is behind those mandates? (hint: the public education lobby). Given the option, voucher proponents would keep it nice and simple: send your kid to a non-public school, get a check, spend it where you want it. Period, end of sentence. But in one of their many attempts to cripple these programs, the public education lobby insists on placing as many restrictions on the program as possible... and then they (you) have the chutzpah to label that a failure of the voucher system. The same holds true for the games that proponents play to get voucher funding, they only do so to get around the rules and limits the education lobby has been so successful in putting on voucher programs.

It would be nice if you didn't have to spend money for supplies out of your own pocket. But when per-pupil spending is at all time highs, the program isn't a lack of money being spent on public education, but rather where the money is being spent. If your colleagues weren't so insistent on preventing even bad teachers from being let go, then there would be more money for supplies. If there weren't so many administrators pushing paper around, there would be more money for supplies. If systems weren't forced to provide free meals to pretty much anyone who wants it, there would be more money for supplies. As I've said before, when you and your colleagues start lobbying to cut out the wasteful spending, then the general public would be a bit more sympathetic.

BTW, I guess you spend the same out of pocket on your union dues. Yet, you don't complain about that. But which $2,000 provides the biggest bang for the kids? (repeat, the kids, not the teacher).

It isn't just that conservatives hate big government, we hate the professional entrenched government who aren't responsive to the wishes of the public. We're tired of being treated like ATMs who are ignored when it comes to, among other issues, determining the curriculum taught to our kids. I want my kids taught to count and read, not taken out of the classroom to attend an education lobby protest. I want an 'A' to signify that they really, really know their stuff, not that they simply 'tried really hard'.

It comes down to this: were you and your colleagues more responsive to parental concerns, the voucher program would be a non-issue.

Posted by: steve at September 6, 2011 09:43 AM

Hey, Mr. English teacher, that was a pretty roundabout way to hit on my lovely wife! Back off, Bud!

Steve, we teachers know your kids and don't give a flying boxcar about them. We are in the education game for the feather beds, money, power, cheerleaders, and endless union dues. We know that you are powerless to control the school board or administration in your community school system. We walk our classes to picket lines because life is so much more fun there--who really wants to read Thoreau anymore? We just hope that the big secret that we teachers control school policy--that we are really the fat spiders pulling strings at the center of the web--will continue to be hidden from public view, although your example does not give us hope.

Now, on to plot higher union dues. How to manage it...?

Posted by: Bob at September 6, 2011 06:02 PM

Dear Steve:

Thanks for your comment, but I fear it's not nearly as illuminating as you assume. As preamble, please understand that I am not in any way involved with a union, nor would I be. Unions would like you to believe that most American teachers are rabid members of the NEA. They're not. Entire states, such as mine, are right to work and have no unions. I generally believe that teacher's unions in particular, and unions in general, are for the enrichment of union bosses and their supporting politicians. Their efforts on behalf of their members are merely their primary means of enriching themselves and keeping the political influence and favors rolling their way.

That said, I don't believe for a moment that every teacher who is forced to be a union member is a union Kool Aid drinker, nor do I think they care little or nothing for their students. Bad teachers? Indeed, fire them. Are there too many highly paid administrators? In many districts absolutely.
I doubt that Indiana teacher's unions are behind the voucher regulations as Gov. Daniels has been in the forefront of limiting union power and influence, but I could be mistaken. My point is simply that when we accept government money, we inevitably end up with government regulations that almost always are exactly the opposite of what we want, and this is true even where Republicans are in charge. We all know that for many years—in DC as well as many states—Republicans were scarcely indistinguishable from Democrats, particularly where spending, regulations and increasing the power of the state were concerned. Indiana's voucher program might seem to be additional evidence that they still are, to at least some degree.

Understand that free and reduced price lunches are—for the most part--federal programs imposed on local districts, and that not everyone can qualify. The money I spend out of my own pocket directly benefits my kids, and this is the case with countless teachers.

But above all else, please understand this: Teachers have virtually no power or influence. They don't hire, they don't fire, they aren't allowed to make policy, disburse money, determine salaries or benefits unless unionized and I've already pointed out the concerns of unions, which do not give teachers any power either. Want to place blame for problems where it belongs? Start with your local school board. If they don't pay attention, work to enrich themselves, reward political cronies, negotiate extortionate contracts with unions, teachers have nothing to say about it, and dare not lest they be fired. Blame school administrators who collude with school boards for their ridiculously compensated make-work jobs. Teachers? When the bells ring, they close their doors and do their best, hoping that their "leaders" don't make it any more difficult to do their jobs, which are concerned entirely with providing the best possible educational opportunity for their students.

Steve, if I had the honor and responsibility to teach one of your kids, you'd find that I was the most responsive teacher you ever met, but you'd also find that I have no real power to change any problem we both would recognize, and I work for a very good school district with very good principals.

If you want vouchers to be unnecessary—and my point is that they don't solve problems, but avoid them, making them worse in the future—you and your fellow citizens have to hold your local schools accountable. I'm absolutely on your side, but no one listens to teachers. What do they know about education?

I hope I've addressed your concerns. Again, thanks for reading and commenting.

Posted by: Mike Mc at September 6, 2011 09:16 PM


You write: "when we accept government money, we inevitably end up with... regulations... almost always are exactly the opposite of what we want". Would you agree that applies as well to the public system itself, a huge recipient of government money?

Just as parents/voters theoretically have control over the school boards, so too do teachers have control over their unions. If you collectively didn't want the union to protect bad teachers, they wouldn't. But collectively, teachers would prefer to protect one and all.

Bob: any teacher who walks out on strike or skips class to go protest is putting his or her interests ahead of the kids. That's their right, so please shelve the sanctimonious response that it anything but that.

Posted by: steve at September 7, 2011 12:22 PM

Dear Steve:

Thanks once again for reading and commenting. It's much appreciated.

You raise an interesting issue. I've often been frustrated by the problems inherent in the public schools, even those—the majority—that work quite well. I used to think that if the public only knew exactly what was going on, they'd be very upset, but over the years, I've realized that the status quo is, in fact, what they want. Even if they're not aware of it, they should be, because it's the inevitable consequence of their action or inaction, in many cases. I'll be addressing that in my next letter from the teacher next Tuesday.

Regarding teachers controlling unions, I've found it to be just the opposite of what you suggest. Union members have no control whatsoever over union bosses, and any teacher foolish enough to try to hold them accountable is quickly disabused of their foolish misconceptions, usually in a very aggressive and hostile manner. Any teacher who has ever tried to leave a union or receive a dues refund knows exactly what I mean.

There are, of course, many teacher/union members who are whole-heartedly behind the political goals of their unions, and they certainly walk in lockstep with their bosses because it is to their financial and political benefit to do so. However, agreement on political goals shouldn't be confused with actual power in the hands of teachers.

Regarding "Bob," the Bob to which I occasionally write is fictional, so I'm not sure exactly who our commenting "Bob" is, but I suspect he's being satiric.

Thanks again, and you might want to stop by next Tuesday.

Posted by: Mike Mc at September 7, 2011 05:03 PM