PRIMAL SCREED/James McCarty Yeager

Education: Public Utility
or Private Privilege?

Washington, D.C.

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 immediate desires.

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.

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