Vanishing Point

The dirty secret of education reform.

OCCASIONALLY AN ANGRY reader will call or write to ask how I dare say so many nasty things about respectable people and eminent institutions. I blame it on my schooling. Down through the years one of my burdens has been the stubborn persistence of lessons learned in the course of my public education in a tiny Iowa town. Equal protection under the law, freedom of thought underwritten by a free and vigorous press, the right of all to a voice in affairs of state and to a decent education: notions of dubious standing as historical fact and immense value as civic ideals. My own kids will know better and probably be poorer for it.

Either way, though, the game is up. Public education as we've known it for the past several generations is history; what passes for education policy at the national level is really a matter of malign neglect and chronic decay. You have only to listen to the cant of the experts to see why. There is scarcely anyone anymore who contests the proposition that the main purpose of education is to make productive workers, and the plain fact is that a lean and mean America poised for the global age does not require the same things in its work force that industrial America did. The skilled and semi-skilled manufacturing jobs that drove working class prosperity have been swallowed up by automation and capital flight. There is endless talk of the better-educated, more specialized work force that will take their place; only a handful of fatally candid souls, such as MIT economist Lester Thurow, are prone to pointing out that the main engines of the economy will run with a much smaller work force. The going estimate is that about 20 percent of the populace can expect to continue living the dream of rising income and relative social mobility.

For the rest there is the edifying prospect of learning firsthand what it's like to live in the Third World, of which Manhattan is already the capital. The polarization of rich and poor there exceeds the income gap between banana barons and peasant farmers in Guatemala, and the Pataki/Giuliani regime is in the process of further cutting funds for health care, public transit, and welfare benefits. What goes for New York goes for the country at large. As the director of the international Luxembourg Income Study recently reported to Congress, the United States boasts "a level of disadvantage unknown to any other major country on earth."

Nowhere is the resulting pressure felt more acutely than in public schools, where an ever-mounting share of resources is consumed in the effort to compensate for the troubles kids bring to the classroom with them, ranging from malnutrition and abuse to utter hopelessness. The fable of the city school as war zone has been exaggerated for political effect--the more public education is painted as another Vietnam, the easier it becomes to justify a withdrawal of forces--but the reality is grim enough. There's nothing more dangerous than a young person who concludes that his or her life means nothing and playing by the rules is for suckers, but facts are facts. Ultimately there's no mending the schools and the children in them without addressing the radical polarization of wealth in America, which has accelerated since 1978 at a rate unprecedented anywhere or anytime in human history.

And income redistribution is not on the menu. The prevailing ethic of business and both major political parties is to let the chips fall where they may. Market discipline demands no less. The sum of federal social policy since Reagan's "new federalism" is a kind of three-card monte in which the public has been snookered by a series of false pleas. First the Reaganites cut the revenue base, blew the lid off military spending, and pled poverty with respect to domestic programs, setting off budgetary wars of attrition that lasted through the 1980s. Lately the gambit has been to end federal programs and guarantees in the name of empowering (always trouble, that word) states to go their own way. States of course will compete to ensure that their welfare benefits are more meager than their neighbors' lest they become magnets to the wrong sort of people. All down the line the hidden agenda has been to remove impediments to "competitiveness" and safeguards for the poor in the name of battling deficits and bloated government. The reporter who asked Newt Gingrich whether his anti-statist rhetoric made him complicit in the Oklahoma City bombing had a point.

Bill Clinton may fret at the Republicans' budgetary villainy, but he was the one who pledged to dismantle the welfare system. His own Medicare plan would cut two-thirds as much as the Republican bill he now has the gall to threaten to veto for moral reasons. And the base logic of the two major trade agreements passed by a Democratic Congress during his administration is to assure that capital will continue to flee the borders until such time as wages and social protections here fall to the level of countries where there is effectively no living wage, no environmental regulation, no welfare system. In this setting it not only makes no sense to sustain a serious investment in universal public education; it's counterproductive. Education for what, after all? To raise expectations? To encourage participation in a system that increasingly counts most of its citizens as surplus population?

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