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?

The scorched earth education policy has its apologists all across the political spectrum, starting on the right with Charles Murray and the genes-are-destiny crowd and continuing to the multiculturalist academics who believe race pride and resegregated schools are a fine substitute for resources and opportunities. Meanwhile the number of education reform schemes multiplies annually in inverse relation to the dwindling commitment of federal and state governments. You can barely count them: vouchers, open enrollment, charter schools, magnet schools, privately managed schools, neighborhood schools. What all the reformers have in common, from the grubbiest of entrepreneurs to the most earnest small-d democrats, is that they face problems they don't have the resources to solve. Even the best of their plans amount to triage: deciding who can be kept alive the longest and how to mount the least bloody retreat.

It's disgusting to watch. Public schools, despite their many faults, were the very best of American democracy and its main bulwark. They were the place where the average person was most likely to experience close encounters with other races and classes and values. If one was going to catch any real passion for democratic ideals, to acquire any feeling of common humanity and common destiny, it was likely going to happen there. Or not at all. The passing of the common school stands to make "democracy" even emptier than money and privilege have yet managed to render it.

IT'S BEEN ENTERTAINING to watch stalwarts of the Republican right dance round the prospect of a Powell candidacy. A few weeks back on This Week With David Brinkley, Bill Bennett and the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed waxed coy, deftly evading questions about how they could possibly refrain from denouncing a baby-killer such as the general. The opportunists on the party's cultural right recognize that however unpopular Bill Clinton might be, the GOP is hard-pressed to come up with anyone besides Powell who is not more unpopular. If he'll run they'll take him; the Bible-swallowers at the grassroots wouldn't like it, but they're soft on Dole, too. I doubt they would cost Powell the election, but they may dissuade him from running. So in the end Clinton may prevail because a bunch of zealots who believe end time is near don't think a four-star general is god-and-country enough to suit their tastes. All in all, quite a testament to the vitality of two-party politics.

AN INTERESTING FOOTNOTE from Kip Sullivan of the Health Care Coalition of Minnesota: In a recent issue of the HCCM newsletter, he traces the deals brokered by Gingrich to make sure there would be no opposition to the Republican Medicare/Medicaid plan. The AMA was bought off with the promise of malpractice caps; the American Hospital Association got an assurance of anti-trust exemptions for hospital chains and provider-run networks; the nursing home lobby got a complete repeal of Title 19 federal regulations ("unless the states do anything to regulate," notes Sullivan, "we will go back to the days of the warehouse nursing homes"); and the AARP was co-opted with a compromise that shifted much of the burden of rising costs from seniors to providers.

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