PRIMAL SCREED/James McCarty Yeager
Education: Public Utility
or Private Privilege?
Ever since Henry VIII put the Crown of England on a sound financial footing
by selling off (to the suddenly Protestant aristocracy) all the Catholic
monasteries he hadn't paid for, the temptation to privatize government services
has lurked menacingly on the fringes of public policy. Always the motive
is to lower taxes on the rich by dispensing with those public amenities
which the poor and middle classes, being more numerous, use more frequently
and intensely than the rich, who can (and do, and did) provide their own
plush ameliorations of the roughness of the mortal lot.
In the case of Henry VIII, he and his supporters claimed, in a notion that
is eerily familiar to the Bush League mind, that the social services provided
by the religious orders were either unnecessary or, if necessary, could
be provided by private charity. The prayer performed by the religious orders
was, of course, immediately dismissed as being invisible, intangible, immeasurable
and therefore very likely fraudulent. It can be argued that thus began a
long slow decline leading to the Episcopalian Church, foxhunting, Yale,
and other well-bred horrors, all of which are quite tangible and therefore
likely inadequate to any fully human purpose.
Meanwhile, England lost a large number of hospitals, hostels, mental institutions,
long-term care facilities, scriptoria, libraries, and what would now be
called "community centers," in addition to those prayers which
the official culture of that time, not to mention this one, deemed useless.
When Henry VIII sold off the monasteries, he at once purchased the loyalties
of all their recipients (who never thought to receive such benefits at all,
much less at such low prices.) The stability of the Protestant succession
in England was guaranteed by the landholdings redistributed from the Catholic
Church. The Crown got the money, and the new landholders became loyal to
the Church of England.
A similar circling of vultures is now casually weighing up the meat on the
bones of the not-yet-moribund American public schools. In their loathing
for taxation, teachers' unions and multicultural texts by non-defunct non-white
non-males, the Religious Reichgt and its corporatist protectors have formed
an alliance that, in common with other forms of addictive behavior, is likely
to prove fatal to both in the long run while appearing to gratify their
It is a curious fact, and one not wholly coincidental, that the school systems
closest to failing to meet the needs of their students, parents, citizens,
community, economy and country are the ones with the smallest tax base in
relation to the largest number of economically deprived students. This non-coincidence
might lead to the supposition that perhaps the educational structure itself
is quite competent, but the society it supports is deficient. Naturally
that supposition is immediately suppressed by those to whom the notion of
social (as distinguished from individual) inadequacy is a horrible invitation
to do something large, structural and costly. It is always much easier to
pretend that any problem lies in the morals of the deprived than in the
systems the nation uses to avoid their needs.
No, privatization is an idea so modern and up-to-date that Henry VIII had
it in 1533. The current fiction being spread by the Republican party in
the Senate and House is that devoting federal tax money in a no-strings-attached
manner to local school systems is good whereas mandating that such money
be used to hire more teachers is bad. The simple mantra "federal regulation
bad, local control good" displays a touching faith in school boards
which nobody who has had anything to do with them can easily maintain.
The Tory weekly The Economist, like the Republican party, is rigorously
opposed to public spending on all goods save the military. It recently noted
with some complacency that, having picked clean the bones of medical care,
the marketplace was now moving onto the field of education. It predicted
that as great a shift as from doctor-centered care to HMOs was about to
happen in public education. It foresaw with approval that large corporations
are beginning to collaborate with politicians to destroy the current educational
structure on the grounds of wastefulness and inefficiency.
Of course, the idea that public services ought to be efficiently delivered
is not what they have in mind. They are slaves to that spurious form of
efficiency developed by capitalists which says that fewer workers at lower
wages are always to be preferred to many workers at higher wages. As Senator
Pat Moynihan (D-NY) has observed, the government performs those functions
which are inherently inefficient and not suited to market-based quotas or
measurements, such as transportation, education, and welfare. He says such
services are like art. His illustrative example is that it took four men
30 minutes to perform a Mozart string quartet in 1789. It still does. No
gain in efficiency is possible in such a case. Teachers are going to have
to deal with unwilling minds and inadequate facilities housed in expensively
crumbling buildings. And that process is never going to be efficient either.
All the best teachers I had did not communicate ideas or facts but did possess
an enthusiasm for their subject, always and everywhere allied with a way
of thinking about the subject that kept it fresh and interesting. It was
nicely circular: enthusiasm leads to thinking leads to interest leads to
enthusiasm. Arguments about the financing of education are really over the
content of education, and are between those who want to jealously guard
teachers from pursuing any unorthodoxies and those who want teachers to
be free to inspire by whatever means they can. The local control smokescreen,
behind which lurks the notion of privatization, is intended to make sure
teachers do not stray from community standards of boredom, insipidity and
uselessness that are the mark of complacent municipalities everywhere.
Oddly enough, it is federal regulation that leads to greater freedom, experimentation,
and latitude for teachers to work with their students most intensively.
How? By devoting more money to the institutions than local property-based
tax systems ever want to, and by ensuring (by regulation) that the money
goes to something other than concrete and brick. The Republicans are, in
general, unwilling to spend money on people, but only on things. Turning
school systems over to contractors, and its corollary of turning tax money
over to private schools, is being touted as a cost cutting measure similar
to using HMOs to bring the dubious and oversold "efficiencies of the
marketplace" into the distribution of a vital social necessity.
Besides, the use of federal money for local purposes in the form of block
grants to states and municipalities is one of Richard Nixon's most unconstitutional
ideas. It gives them, after all, representation without taxation.
James McCarty Yeager went to private schools but has his children educated
in Maryland public schools near the Little Falls of the Potomac River.
News | Current Issue
| Back Issues | Essays
About the Progressive Populist | How
to Subscribe | How to Contact Us
Copyright © 1999 The Progressive Populist