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January 21, 2005

equality of opportunity: three

Don Herzog: January 21, 2005

"What have you done to deserve such advantages?  You have taken the trouble to be born — nothing more!"  So Figaro expostulates to the Count in Beaumarchais's 1784 play, The Marriage of Figaro.  Just eight years later, in his Rights of Man Tom Paine continued his relentless sneering campaign against Burke's conservatism with a memorable pun:

The more aristocracy appeared, the more it was despised; there was a visible imbecility and want of intellects in the majority, a sort of je ne sais quoi, that while it affected to be more than citizen, was less than man.  It lost ground from contempt more than from hatred; and was rather jeered at as an ass, than dreaded as a lion.  This is the general character of aristocracy, or what are called Nobles or Nobility, or rather No-ability, in all countries.

Americans of the eighteenth and nineteenth century knew they didn't have any titled nobility.  But they still wielded "aristocracy" as a pejorative label and a warning; they still feared inherited wealth and privilege.  "The earth belongs to the living," insisted Thomas Jefferson, echoing a slogan from the radical Levellers of 17th-century England.

I've been arguing that we should wrest free of the stale contrast between equality of opportunity ("hurray!") and equality of outcome ("boo!").  The "hurray!" and "boo!" are rightly placed.  But the contrast glides oh so smoothly over the decisive point.  Any defensible conception of equality of opportunity has to include some conception of equality of starting points.  And again, "equality" will mean ensuring a floor that's good enough, not somehow ensuring that everyone receives an identical or identically valuable package.

So equality doesn't mean uniformity or homogenization; it isn't the resentful or envious drive to strip the wealthy or talented of their superiority.  It's a campaign to open up possibilities for those deprived of them.  You don't choose your parents, your genetic inheritance, your place of birth, and so on.  I've yet to bump into the imaginary leftist who believes the state must somehow "remedy" all of that.  But a familiar model in this country for financing the public schools is indefensible, and the state can and should remedy it.

On its face it's a problem to finance schools from the local property tax base.  It means that children lucky enough to be born into prosperous communities can attend great schools, unless of course the locals are singularly stingy about taxes.  But no matter what their community thinks, it dooms kids in poor communities to poor schools.  Affirmative action years later is a wretched solution to this problem.  But every American child is entitled to a decent education, and the decision to publicly finance schools acknowledges that.  (A world where the state didn't raise funds for education would consign children to the wealth and benevolence of their parents plus the charitable impulses of others.  If equality of opportunity demands a decent education, as I think it does, that world isn't good enough.)  Consider the disparity between ritzy suburban schools, with recording studios, Olympic-sized swimming pools, courses in six foreign languages, and plenty of advanced placement courses; and decrepit inner-city schools, with no gym facilities at all, bloated class sizes, impoverished course offerings, and obsolete lab equipment or no lab equipment at all.  Not that the suburban kids should go to worse schools; rather the inner-city kids should go to better ones. 

Just over half the budget of Pennsylvania's public schools is raised locally; the state contributes the rest and directs more money to poorer districts.  (Here is more detail.)  Instead of seeing the dread hand of redistribution, see equality of opportunity at work and wonder if it's good enough.  Philadelphia's Overbrook High posts utterly dismal test results, has been listed as persistently dangerous, is overwhelmingly black and heavily poor, and is mostly known for turning out professional athletes.  (Ironically, the school received 35 computers from Lockheed Martin, which was donating them in honor of Philadelphia Eagles touchdowns.)   I don't know anything about the school's curriculum or facilities here are some reforms underway but that's not why I bring it up.  Even in such unpromising settings, students can do great things.  With a wonderfully committed coach, Overbrook has won a series of mock trial championships.  That doesn't make me think the school is just fine.  (Knowing just these scant facts, would you choose to send your child there?)  It reminds me that talent and guts are everywhere, and we can't afford to let them languish just because kids are born in poverty.  And it's not just that "society" benefits; every one of those kids is entitled to a decent start in life.  Schools can't cure all the ills of blighted communities, but they can help.  Money and class size aren't everything in running a good school, but it would be simple lunacy to infer that they don't matter.

President Bush's worry about "the soft bigotry of low expectations" is exactly right:  in fact it's my favorite phrase of his.  I don't know enough about No Child Left Behind to have an informed view on it.  (I do know that teachers have reasonable worries about "teaching to the tests," and I sadly remember growing up in New York, which has state-wide Regents examinations, and constantly being told in response to my curious questions, "don't worry about it, it won't be on the Regents."  And I do know it's odd to find the conservative right dropping its concerns for federalism and rallying behind a stronger federal presence in this arena.)  Accountability and improvement are all to the good, and I've indicated my affection for school choice.  But there's more to be done, and room here for more left-right alliances in improving the nation's schools.  A crucial piece of this complicated jigsaw puzzle is the common practice of financing schools on local property taxes.  It's not the inherited aristocracy Beaumarchais and Paine ridiculed, but it's uncomfortably like it.


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Posted by: Paul Deignan

The only question here is to do with the freedom to contribute more than what is sufficient to fund education and how to ensure a sufficient education for all.

As with most other rights, there is a minimal sufficient level (housing, food, medical) and an allowance for going above and beyond. Since education is a good, we would not want to limit or discourage others from contributing to it above and beyond what is sufficient. Naturally, they will favor their own communities (even is those communities are geographically disjoint).

The real issue is in ensuring a sufficient education independent of wealth. The NCLB program is one method. The results of this reform will be seen over the next several years. We will know more then.

(Is having a recording studio in a school really education or uneducation? Some universities now think they need rock climbing setups in their athletic facilities. My guess is that this has little to do with the education of the students).

Posted by: Paul Deignan | Jan 21, 2005 8:37:50 AM

Posted by: Paul Deignan

On that note, professors:

If you are posting from your office computers (or not), your university may consider these posts to be their intellectual property and therefore falling under their policies and procedures. If you have not already, best to make sure you are OK on this.

Posted by: Paul Deignan | Jan 21, 2005 9:08:41 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Herzog asserts without argument that any defensible concept of equality of opportunity (read “any such concept with which he would agree”) will include “ensuring a floor that’s good enough.” Well, maybe. But he has yet to be forthcoming with any sorts of specifics (especially including price tags) regarding what sort of flooring we are supposed to be installing. Perhaps if he would do so I might be a bit less ready to reach for my favorite handgun when I sense he is reaching for my wallet.

If there is a refrain more tired than the refrain to refrain from continuing in stale contests between two competing visions (especially, oddly enough, when the Left seems to be losing the contest) it is the old “Something has to be done about these poor people and only the state can do it” melody with that haunting refrain “It’s for the children!” I don’t mean to be attacking Mr. Herzog personally here, but those of us who believe (1) that the plight of the urban poor is largely the fault of the Left, (2) that large swaths of the Left have far less interest in reducing poverty or empowering the urban poor than they have in using them as a springboard to power, and (3) that for the most part the beneficence and wealth (if not appropriated by the state) of most parents would be vastly superior in securing an education for their children than the government would, find it difficult to meet his arguments about tax reform with much of an open mind.

Here’s the problem. Rich school district versus poor school district quickly expands into rich county versus poor county, then into rich state versus poor state and what do we end up with? A federal Department of Education mandating and then controlling a redistribution of wealth to ensure nationwide minimum per student funding for education. Because it’s now federal money, we soon have the feds controlling education, which they damned near do already. Why? Remember the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules. So we get “Son of No-Child-Left-Behind.” Now we have minimum federal standards as well. That will work just fine. There won’t be any mission creep. We can trust those (mostly) gals. Why look at the marvelous benefits we’ve already reaped just from having a DoED. It’s worked like a charm! And it certainly won’t be controlled behind the scenes by the teachers’ unions and those institutions of academic rigor and excellence, the university schools of education, will it? And even if it is, they’ll continue to put the best interests of the students ahead of their own interests just like they do now, won’t they? Of course they will. We can trust them, they’re here to help us. (And besides, it’s for the children!)

Phooey. Break the monopoly of government schools first, then we’ll see whether we are spending too little or too much on public education both locally and across the board. Until then, keep your cotton-picking hands off my already far too thin wallet.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 9:13:56 AM

Posted by: Paul Deignan

Cross post. My last post here refers to the my last post here

Posted by: Paul Deignan | Jan 21, 2005 10:46:50 AM

Posted by: mikec

One thing to keep in mind is that funding for schools is a means to the goal of better education, not a goal in itself. And there's very little evidence that it's an effective means. It might be a better use of time to figure out how to convince inner-city parents to act more like suburban parents when it comes to raising their children.

Posted by: mikec | Jan 21, 2005 11:32:26 AM

Posted by: jp

Whew. This sort of reminds me of times when students want to work on the topic of "Plato" for a five page paper. Lots going on here, to be sure.

One thing that I think is interesting is that one of the main thrusts of Herzog's point in this latest installment rings undoubtedly true, and hasn't been addressed by the various comments, as far as I can tell: "Not that the suburban kids should go to worse schools; rather the inner-city kids should go to better ones."

Now, that alone certainly doesn't solve any problems, but it's a way of thinking about the problem that I think mikec, with his implication that inner-city parents are at fault because they just don't know how to raise their children (and not, for instance, because they have to work two jobs, or because they themselves don't have the education that their kids are supposed to be getting), isn't taking seriously. Sure, there are probably multiple reasons why suburban kids generally do better in life that urban kids--but that doesn't mean that we ought not try to even out the starting points.

Posted by: jp | Jan 21, 2005 12:46:53 PM

Posted by: Bret

If equality of starting points is required for fairness, why would this end at America's borders? Shouldn't we also ensure that every child on the face of the planet has a fair starting point? On the other hand, if we're allowed to stop the equality of starting points at our borders, then it must be fair to give preferential treatment to our own citizens. If that's the case, then wouldn't it be fair to give preferential treatment to our communities and our families? Claiming that something is required for fairness, but having that fairness stop at an arbitrary geographical point seems contradictory to me.

I'm also wondering if equality of starting points with respect to education is to be achieved, whether or not we should begin taking children away from parents as in Swift's Lilliput. I find it unlikely that all subcultures within the United States (or the world) place the same emphasis on the importance of education, and I believe that the importance of education to a given family has a substantial influence on whether on not the children of that family embrace learning. Far more of an impact than whether or not they have lab equipment. For example, my daughters would get an education even if schools did not exist. We read constantly and I give them a math problem to contemplate as I tuck them in to bed at night. That may happen in some of the Philadelphia's Overbrook High's families as well, but I doubt the prevalence is quite as high.

I think that the Left focuses on the individual, whereas I consider an individual as part of a long thread, starting in the distant past and continuing on forever. As you can imagine, the concept of "starting points" for each new generation doesn't really fit my belief system particularly well.

The much better place to focus, if you want to sell policy to me, is to show me why my descendents will be better off. I think you should actually be able to make a pretty compelling case for that, since I don't believe that having a perpetual underclass is tolerable.

Posted by: Bret | Jan 21, 2005 12:50:13 PM

Posted by: Paul Deignan

Equality of starting points?!

Are we really serious? Because here we go straight and without interruption to the discussion of Roe III.

No, the issue here is not "starting points" but simple wealth allocation in a democracy. Let's drop the propaganda unless you are serious about the point.

Posted by: Paul Deignan | Jan 21, 2005 1:00:06 PM

Posted by: slarrow

D.A. Ridgely: hear hear!

A couple more thoughts: the problem with your analysis, Prof. Herzog, is that it treats a dependent variable like an independent one. The desirability of funding through local property taxes is a function of the prosperity of the community. But prosperous communities are prosperous for a reason; as part and parcel of their prosperity are a number of factors that provide the framework for successful schools: preponderance of marriages, involved parenting, safer streets, general support and inherent gratitude for education, etc. To focus on the funding formula instead of ways to make the underlying community more prosperous is problematic; even if you get more money for the school, the real problems haven't been solved. In other words, it does little good to work with the measurement of inequality of prosperity when the underlying reality is what really matters. And now we're back to equalizing communities and people, not just schools. (And with respect, jp, evening out starting points has a lot to do with those parents. Conservatives are addressing the question from the angle you suggest; it's just that we think the state and schools have been proven to be very limited in their effectiveness at improving local conditions.)

Then, of course, by calling for the end of local funding, you get to propose the model to replace it. Suppose it's something along the lines of what D.A. Ridgely suggests. No longer will tax dollars go to support my kids or my neighbor's kids; it's going to absolute strangers who aren't accountable to me in any way. This has its own host of issues to wade through, and good luck.

Is this to say that conservatives are happy poor communities aren't more prosperous? Heck, no. We'd love it if those communities did better, and several conservatives have worked to make it so (based on conservative principles, of course, which made the efforts not count in the eyes of some.) But this is an area in which there is disagreement on methods, means, and motivations, though the goals largely overlap. (I, for instance, would say the problem isn't inequality. It's crime, illegitimacy, sexual promiscuity, drug sale and use, and basic thuggery. I'm not concerned about systems and formula; I'm interested in helping the good guys and hurting the bad guys in order to improve things. Simplicity has its merits.)

Posted by: slarrow | Jan 21, 2005 1:10:31 PM

Posted by: AlanC9

Is that "better off" in relative or absolute terms, Bret? Which is preferable, earning $80,000 with average wages at $40,000, or earning $100,000 with average wages at $70,000? (Not that we could ever come up with accurate figures.)

I think we don't really need to think about the fairness of stopping at our borders just yet, since abolishing them isn't politically feasible under any circumstances I can imagine. Same thing for taking children away from incompetent parents.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Jan 21, 2005 1:19:14 PM

Posted by: S. Weasel

It's also worth pointing out that education is necessary to prosperity (and, for that matter, happiness) only up to a point.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Jan 21, 2005 1:31:37 PM

Posted by: marek

D.A. Ridgley, I am responding directly to you, but hope my comments will be taken more generally:

(1) Don Herzog suggests that any defensible concept of equality of opportunity entails some notion of similar starting points. You disagree. Can you say a bit about a concept of equality of opportunity that doesn't?. His suggestion I read as a challenge, not a mere assertion of his will. It's only a challenge in so far as you are committed to equality of opportunity, but want to avoid the entailment -- but this appears to be your position.

(2) Your assertions about "the Left" strike this old-fashioned lefty as preposterous. Here you are faced with a number of real individuals who describe themselves as "left" -- and it turns out that they quote Locke and Blackstone and support school choice (well, one does -- I am not sold on that yet). Your response, it seems to me, is to take refuge in caricature.

(3) One implication is that you insist on committing "the Left" to the use of centralized state administrations to solve any problem. I don't see this as at all implied in what has been said so far in any of the posts on equality of opportunity or on the related theme of meritocracy (to which I contributed without having read these first!). Do you concede that the existing state of public education in the U.S. is a mockery of the ideal of equality of opportunity, and that that ideal is worth pursuing? If we share that ground, then we can talk mechanism, balance of state/private action, federalism etc. For various reasons I worry very much about "govt. monopoly of education" -- and for various other reasons I worry very much about ceding control of education to unaccountable private corporations and the vagaries of the market-place. I don't want to also commit the sin of caricature -- but you appear to me to be committed to the latter for reasons that are wholly utopian. Why would our experience with markets for any other goods or services lead us to conclude that a wholly private system of education would produce roughly equal educational conditions for all citizens? Is this really what you are suggesting?

Posted by: marek | Jan 21, 2005 1:41:45 PM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury

Personally I'd love to see the Federal government pour a boatload more money into per-pupil spending.

It won't make any disparities go away, but it would probably have a positive effect. A program that aimed specifically at making sure all schools were spacious, clean, and modern would be a reasonably hands-off way for the Federal government to spend a lot of education money.

However the money was divied up, it would at least change the terms of the debate from "not enough money" to "not enough reform."

Ah, disparities. If you compare the average suburban school to the average urban school you may see grave disparities. But what if you just look at the urban schools over time? Education spending per pupil has doubled in the last generation and poor students have been specifically targeted: "federal funding for Title I, which provides grants to help disadvantaged children, rose from under $3 billion in 1980 to more than $7 billion in 2000 and nearly $14 billion in 2005." (http://www.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/edlite-chart.html#3, http://www.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/index.html)

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Jan 21, 2005 1:45:18 PM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury

So my follow-up question is: Is this attempt to equalize opportunity the reason why Prof. Herzog is such a big Bush supporter?

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Jan 21, 2005 1:48:27 PM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury

Kidding aside, I think the left and right could at least agree that property taxes are a bad way to fund anything. Yes? Here in Providence, RI, the city's tax revenues are killed by the fact that four of the biggest landowners in the city are universities. In Schenectady, where I grew up, General Electric decided to reduce its tax burden by reducing portions of its factory complex to rubble.

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Jan 21, 2005 1:55:52 PM

Posted by: mikec

JP writes:

"Now, that alone certainly doesn't solve any problems, but it's a way of thinking about the problem that I think mikec, with his implication that inner-city parents are at fault because they just don't know how to raise their children (and not, for instance, because they have to work two jobs, or because they themselves don't have the education that their kids are supposed to be getting), isn't taking seriously."
I take it seriously, I just think it's a distraction rather than a solution. To me, the logic behind focusing on school funding seems to be as follows:
"We know from lots of studies that parent's attitudes toward education have a huge effect on the outcome for their children. But it isn't charitable to blame parents, and anyway we don't know how to change their behavior. So let's not go there. On the other hand, we also know from lots of studies that there isn't much, if any, correlation between spending money on schools and the outcome for children. However, it is charitable to spend money, and we do know how to do it, so let's go there instead."
Is there more to it than that?

Posted by: mikec | Jan 21, 2005 2:00:36 PM

Posted by: neal

If you want to get a glimpse of what it is like to have "equal" schools, take a look at California. Guess what? There is huge disparity in the school scores across the state, with the "wealthy" areas tending to do the best despite the fact that money is distributed equally based on student population by the state. So why is there such a disparity? It isn't the money. Perhaps it is the teachers? So the good teachers go to the good schools, depsite all the brainwashing? Perhaps it is the parents? Why do Asians do so well in CA and the rest of the country? Maybe it is just attitude?

Perhaps some minorities wallow in self pity because of the idea they are being deprived of what is rightfully theirs (funny, "what have you done to deserve this"), a good education or more money, or whatever, because dangerous people keep telling them that. That they are minorities, and money is not being spent on them fairly.

Which I think is not factual anyway. I read a Christian Science Monitor article about 6 or 7 years ago describing a study that showed the opposite: schools servicing minorities obtain a greater amount of per pupil money than their counterparts.

Posted by: neal | Jan 21, 2005 2:07:46 PM

Posted by: Paul Deignan


Then the idea is that the citizens of RI and that community would vote to remedy the problem. It may be that RI does not care about education and would just as soon spend the tax dollars on the state payroll. The recourse is then NCLB. If that is not good enough, there is home schooling or moving.

The responsibility of educating children rests ultimately with the parents. It is the states responsibility to see that it does not waste the funds allocated to education. Everyone has the same vote.

Posted by: Paul Deignan | Jan 21, 2005 2:07:54 PM

Posted by: Bret

AlanC9 wrote: "Is that "better off" in relative or absolute terms, Bret? Which is preferable, earning $80,000 with average wages at $40,000, or earning $100,000 with average wages at $70,000? (Not that we could ever come up with accurate figures.)"

The latter ($100K/$70K), by far. There are other non-monetary factors to "better off" as well, for example: lower crime rates, better educated populace, etc.

AlanC9 also wrote: "I think we don't really need to think about the fairness of stopping at our borders just yet, since abolishing them isn't politically feasible under any circumstances I can imagine."

By why isn't it politically feasible? It seems to me that it isn't feasible because nobody really cares about this concept of fairness. If they really did care it would become politically feasible. It seems to me that claims of "fairness" may just be rationalizations on why we should pursue various policies.

Why should I care more about someone in Philadelphia than a poor child in Myanmar? The same money that might better educate one child in Philadelphia would better feed a dozen children in Africa. And if I did care about someone in Philadelphia more than someone from another country, it would follow that I might care about my own community even more than another community.

If we're going to be "fair", then let's do it right. Otherwise, let's find a different reason for the desired policy.

Posted by: Bret | Jan 21, 2005 2:20:17 PM

Posted by: neal

Bret wrote:

I'm also wondering if equality of starting points with respect to education is to be achieved, whether or not we should begin taking children away from parents as in Swift's Lilliput.

I love this whole post, but this particularly reminded me of something.

I think this is already happening, and it is what the left wants. Taxes are enormous, and for average people to own a home almost requires two parents working, which means daycare.

In marches the left "Oh, daycare isnt' good enough, we need to regulate and subsidize it." I think this is the way the left will achieve what China forced (wasn't Hillary talking about the need for federal involvement in Daycare a few years ago).

Posted by: neal | Jan 21, 2005 3:06:00 PM

Posted by: Jeff Licquia

Every time school funding comes up, this tired old statistic has to be dealt with as well.

Washington D.C. schools are the best-funded on a per-student basis in the nation. They are also among the worst performing schools in the nation.

Which suggests that, whatever the merits of property tax funding vs. other methods are, funding reform is not sufficient, and may not even be necessary, for reforming public schools.

Posted by: Jeff Licquia | Jan 21, 2005 3:28:55 PM

Posted by: oliver

DA Ridgely writes: "I don’t mean to be attacking Mr. Herzog personally here, , but those of us who believe [bad things of Mr. Herzog and everybody to whom the label 'left' might be attached]"

I don't mean to tell Mr. Ridgely personally to go stuff it, but those of us who believe this forum is for presenting arguments see such comments as non-productive.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 21, 2005 3:37:43 PM

Posted by: Jim Hu


(1) Don Herzog suggests that any defensible concept of equality of opportunity entails some notion of similar starting points. You disagree. Can you say a bit about a concept of equality of opportunity that doesn't?
Since you posed the question more generally, I'll take a stab at it. I'd start with equality under the law/administrative process. Herzog isn't really talking about equality of starting points because that is not physically possible. He's talking about processes that treat people unequally to compensate and ameliorate other forms of inequality. This may or may not work under different theories of justice, but in my book it's not equality of opportunity.

The reductio ad absurdam is based on the fact that no one arrives at the "starting point" out of thin air. The starting point in school is an outcome of parents, prenatal care, neighborhoods, lack of jobs, crime etc. So, I view Herzog as just putting the equality of outcome argument at a different place, which is fine, just call it a limited equality of outcome argument.

oliver: I'm sure that Ridgely can defend himself better than I can, but I generally find his posts, including this one, to be thoughtful presentations of arguments. In this case, I read him as explaining why, based on the history of other programs designed to help the poor, a system to ensure equality of starting points is likely to be unsatisfying in practice despite having emotional appeal in theory. You know, kind of the way you guys talk about bringing democracy to Iraq. We disagree, but it's legit for you to argue in that case that wishing does not make something so.

I am not sure from your heated reaction what you are objecting to in DAR's post (By contrast, Marek voices a specific objection). Again, he can speak for himself, but as one who agrees with his diagnosis, I will posit that most of the bad stuff attributed to the Left in his comment and in my view of the same phenomena is not because the people involved are bad, or had bad intentions. I believe bad stuff happened because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that implementation of programs with laudable goals is generally doomed if one fails to take into account the human frailties of those involved in those programs.

Posted by: Jim Hu | Jan 21, 2005 4:18:18 PM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury


My statement on property taxes is separate from my somewhat feckless support for federal education spending.

My point is that since property taxes tend to be a problematic way for local governments to raise revenue, both the left and right could at least agree to reform that issue. Using local income or consumption taxes to pay for schools, for example, might be preferable.

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Jan 21, 2005 4:43:32 PM

Posted by: oliver

Jim Hu, I objected just to the section I referenced, which I see as either demonstrating insensitivity or poor sportsmanship.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 21, 2005 5:27:56 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely


First, if you read the earlier threads on the same topic, you will find that I have agreed in principle with Mr. Herzog regarding the question of whether an affluent and fundamentally just society has a moral obligation to provide some sort of ‘minimum floor’ for many of its citizens especially including all of its children. I have also agreed with him that any notion of equality of starting points is at best a fond and impracticable utopian dream, at worst an invitation to socialist totalitarianism. (Okay, so those are my words, not his.) Further, he and I agree that school choice is, in general, a good thing. So, to answer your penultimate question, I do not believe in “roughly equal educational conditions for all citizens” in the first place. I believe in that “minimum floor,” and Mr. Herzog and I are arguing over the price and the method of achieving it.

My general esteem for Mr. Herzog aside, what I hear him proposing is tax reform away from real property taxes as the principle basis of financial support for public schools to some other system of ‘equitable’ financial support. I can only assume that other system is a different sort of taxation; moreover, one that entails redistribution of funds from more to less affluent neighborhoods. I certainly do not read him as suggesting that private charitable contributions will suffice, nor do I believe his sense of justice would be satisfied by, say, leveling the per student spending in the great State of Arkansas while New York and other states spend significantly more. If he does hold such views, I shall gladly admit my faulty reading of his comments.

Let me mention a few “old-fashioned lefty” programs that have led to the creation of intractable urban poverty, decay and generations of welfare dependence and dysfuction: rent control (shrinking the rental housing market), public housing projects ("Tomorrows slums today!"), AFDC (“Daddy? We don’t need no stinkin’ daddies!”), cross-city busing of students (“Hello, Suburbia!”), food stamps (humiliation and a black market economy all in one) and Medicaid (“I can’t get a job, I’d lose my Medicaid!”) Virtually all of the Great Society “War on Poverty” programs were an utter disaster. Even the few that tended not to cause more harm than good (e.g., Head Start) have arguably done far less good than claimed. (The data suggests that otherwise similarly situated Head Start and non-Head Start students perform at rough parity by high school, so what's the point?) If you are proud of those programs or wish to tout their success, have at it. If, as I fear is more likely, you are inclined to argue that they would have worked “if only they had been funded adequately,” save your breath. As Mr. Hu more or less noted, the good intentions of the left are utterly irrelevant when the topic becomes how well leftist programs have worked. With that track record (and, remember, Mr. Herzog is a self-identified liberal), we non-liberals are entitled to at least a soupcon of suspicion.

On at least part of one of your points, however, I do agree: “the existing state of public education in the U.S. is a mockery.” Let’s get rid of it.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 5:28:45 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

My dear Mr. Ridgely:

I have also agreed with him that any notion of equality of starting points is at best a fond and impracticable utopian dream, at worst an invitation to socialist totalitarianism.

That was a slip for "equality of outcome," wasn't it? in which case I want to say, not even a fond dream. But if you really meant to "agree" with me to be opposed to equality of starting points, well, oh me oh my but no no no.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Jan 21, 2005 5:31:56 PM

Posted by: AlanC9

Bret on abolishing borders "But why isn't it politically feasible? It seems to me that it isn't feasible because nobody really cares about this concept of fairness. If they really did care it would become politically feasible. It seems to me that claims of "fairness" may just be rationalizations on why we should pursue various policies."

I'd call it hypocricy, not rationalization (not much difference, of course). People like proclaiming that everyone counts the same, but they don't actually want to behave as if that were true.

But so what? In practice, education funding will be controlled though normal politics, so any relation to actual principle will be purely coincidental.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Jan 21, 2005 5:36:33 PM

Posted by: Paul Deignan


I don't know. Relating property taxes to school funding does give those in a geographical region a strong shared interest. This relation is especially a good anchor for raising our young with a sense of community.

Now, I would agree that these taxes should be supplemental to state and federal funds for education. We can still insure that each child has the equivalent of a sufficient voucher. Also, there does need to be room in the system for adaptation while maintaining a direct responsibility and reward linkage.

For example, the US state universities operate very much along these lines. Some states invest in their universities in order to draw industry and residents while other states have no great interest. Overall, the universities are a great draw of talented foreign students to the US. These students generally stay after graduation to fill the need for highly skilled workers.

Posted by: Paul Deignan | Jan 21, 2005 5:38:41 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Herzog:

In your first post on this topic (equality of opportunity: one) you wrote: “Equality of starting points can't literally mean identity of starting points, for the same reason that equality of outcomes is repulsive. No one in his right mind should want to homogenize schools, communities, and the like, and anyway it's impossible. So in the usual story line, which I'm mechanically following -- and which you are obviously free to challenge -- the best interpretation of equality of starting points is setting some decent minimum or floor below which no one may fall.” [Emphasis added.]

It was that with which I agreed. If I have misinterpreted the emphasized part of that quote or otherwise mischaracterized your position there or elsewhere, I apologize.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 5:45:25 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Mr. Ridgely: no, sorry, I didn't realize you were reaching back to that post. Right, literal identity of starting points is a bad idea. A floor is a good -- required -- idea. I would call a floor a reasonable rendition of "equality of starting points" talk, and so I would reject the claim that "any" talk of equality of starting points is utopian rubbish, but I've no interest in quibbling over the semantics.

There's lots of room for reasonable disagreement about where that floor should be set in various domains, and what policies should realize it. That is part of what democratic debate and legislative actions and revisions are for. (Some commenters on this blog would have problems, I think, explaining what they think a legislature is for: it seems to have nothing to do.)

I have the firm belief that in various domains, assuredly including education, we're not meeting the floor. I have no expertise at all in the complex empirical questions you'd want to tackle in articulating and defending better policies. I am inclined to shrug off the various slippery slopes offered here -- why not world equality? why not literal identity of starting points? why not a giant federal bureaucracy? -- by saying that I notice a problem, and I am feeling low-key, level-headed, skeptical, and secular about solving it. Thus for instance elsewhere on this blog I have said that I don't know if Kemp's enterprise zones would work, but I'd love to see some jurisdiction(s) experiment with them.

Because I am a base-born pragmatist, my political thinking is problem-driven, and I am routinely inclined to redescribe positive ideals as ways of articulating what our problems are, no more -- and no less. Notice I do not even say that the Pennsylvania mix of local property tax base and state funding tilted toward poor districts is unacceptable: I say it is a good step in the direction of equality of opportunity and wonder if more is needed. Notice I do not say that more money is all it takes to run a good school: on the contrary, I deny that. But I also say it would be lunacy to deny that money makes a difference. Similarly while I admired the energetic prose style with which you lampooned various Great Society programs, I think you're overstating your case. I quite agree that any number of federal and state programs designed to relieve poverty &c have had perverse consequences. I don't at all agree that on balance they have made the poor worse off than they would be without them. And I haven't a clue who the "large swaths of the Left" are who "far more interested" in using the poor to gain power than actually helping the poor. Who are you thinking of?

Posted by: Don Herzog | Jan 21, 2005 6:20:23 PM

Posted by: jp

slarrow--I never claimed that starting points don't have a lot to do with parents. Rather, I claimed something similar to what people on both sides are claiming, that the larger environment plays a key role in what we're discussing (in this case, I think that if parents in poor communities aren't parenting as well as parents in not-so-poor communities, there are some economic factors involved). The comment you were reacting to was specifically pointing out that there are larger reasons behind parenting problems than simple apathy, as mikec seemed to be implying.

mikec--I think that the subject of school funding changes doesn't have to be ONLY either a distraction or a solution: It can be a partial solution. Herzog doesn't seem to be saying, at least as far as I can tell, that changing the way we fund schools will solve our education problems. He's (in part) saying that changing them would help. You think it's a distraction, I think it can't hurt to entertain the idea.

(And in response to your direct question, micec: I DO think there's more to it than that--part of which is "We can't just go in immediately today and change the economic reality of the surrounding area of every poor urban city. We may be able to make the schools in those areas better.")

I recognize that they money has to come from somewhere (as does everybody here, I think!), but I think we also ought to avoid a false dichotomy ("change funding" vs. "improve the economic community" or some such)if we can.

Furthermore, one interesting point that has come out of this discussion is this: In this case, as in many cases, the Right and the Left can have the same goals, and then discuss the best ways to achieve those goals. Part of the spirit of this blog, I think.

Posted by: jp | Jan 21, 2005 6:33:05 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Herzog:

Agreed as to semantics, and insofar as you did talk of a minimum floor as a way of making sense of the otherwise problematic phrase "equality of starting points" my characterization of your position was both unfair and overstated.

As for those swaths, I would include just about any professional politico who presumes to “speak for the Afro-American community” including the likes of the Reverend Messrs Jackson and Sharpton, but also including a goodly number of bloviating white Democrats (the senior senator from Massachusetts springs to mind, as does the junior senator from New York) who continue to take the votes of the (largely black) urban poor for granted while supporting programs and policies that are inimical to their best interests and even contrary to their beliefs (e.g., school choice and abortion). I would include the Congressional Black Caucus, the current leadership of the NAACP, etc. Shall I name more names either of individuals or of groups?

While we’re on the subject of specifics, could you provide specific evidence that those programs I mentioned have not done more harm than good?

P.S. -- Am I no longer your dear?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 6:40:52 PM

Posted by: Heidi

A point for neal, who claims that we only need to look at California schools to see that equal funding doesn't work.

My semester teaching Freshman Chemistry at UC Berkeley (relatively recently) was an exercise in extreme heartbreak. My students came almost entirely from public schools in California. Four of them -- and they spanned ethnicities -- came from schools in poor areas. Many more came from schools in very wealthy areas. Almost all came from public schools.

"Oh," said one student. "We had this spectrometer in my high school."

"Our chemistry teacher in high school was the PE coach," said another. "We didn't have a regular one, and I don't know how to balance equations." Another one came from a school that didn't have specific lab space. Yet another had a teacher who had actively taught them incorrectly.

Except, of course, the students from crummy schools didn't say "I don't know how to balance equations" because Berkeley didn't teach balancing equations in its introductory course -- it assumed that you already knew how. I didn't realize how bad the disparities were in preparation until about halfway through the semester.

Some of those students from a poor background were smart, motivated, and participated in class at the beginning of the semester. Many of them had parents who supported them. Near the end, they had started to withdraw; they'd had class after class where the teacher told them their preparation was inadequate. They walked into college thinking they could do anything, and got thrown into an environment where they were expected to do everything without advice and training.

This evidence is anecdotal, but whatever you think the funding situation might be, I dare say it wouldn't seem equal under even rudimentary scrutiny. It wasn't the kids, and it wasn't their parents. One group of kids had regular access to equipment worth thousands of dollars; another group didn't even have a competent teacher.

Will equal education give rise to equality of outcome? No, probably not even in an ideal world. But at least it won't cripple intelligent, competent students into thinking they can't make it.

Posted by: Heidi | Jan 21, 2005 7:00:16 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

As a brief addendum to Heidi’s comments, I’m not familiar with California schools, per se, but I had occasion last spring to visit family in the Bay Area while taking my older son to visit Stanford (and a drive-by ‘tour’ of Berkeley). They live in one of those silicon-valley communities where the starter homes are over a million dollars and I was shocked (shocked!) to hear about all the things they, with a child in the local public elementary school, were being expected to subsidize out of their own pockets over and above the school’s budget, including text books, equipment, etc. Of course, they can afford it, and therein lies another problem with attempts at equalizing starting points.

As my dad used to say, “Son, rich or poor, it’s good to have a lot of money.”

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 7:16:23 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Mr. Ridgely:

I don't like Jackson and I quite dislike Sharpton (though people I know across the ideological spectrum who saw him in the primary debates -- I didn't -- came away much impressed). I have nothing nice to say about Ted Kennedy's personal life but recall even the National Observer commenting favorably on his legislative role. The others you mention, as far as I know about them, seem fine.

But your accusation against them -- that large swaths of the Left have far less interest in reducing poverty or empowering the urban poor than they have in using them as a springboard to power -- is just extraordinarily grave. Because it sounds like more than the claim that they support policies that you believe have singularly bad results. It sounds like you think they're doing it on purpose, that they care far less for the actual welfare of the poor than they do for using them to stay in power. I know you've described your view of politicians as cynical, but this goes far beyond cynical. Is it really what you mean?

As to specific evidence on the effects of various social programs, it's hard to come by, for the straightforward reason that we're arguing about the counterfactual: where would the poor be without them? The historical evidence is of some use in that. If I think about the grim world portrayed in Michael Harrington's The Other America of 1962, I think both that we're not as far from that as we should be and that things are in some ways better. If I think about the urban riots of the '60s, I think the same.

As I said I'm not an expert on any of these matters, putting it mildly. But I do think it's odd to suggest that putting checks in the mail to people is a recipe for impoverishing them.

PS -- No, always. But when you didn't reciprocate the gesture, I worried that you thought it snide, so I promptly dropped it. You are consistently thoughtful and interesting on this blog, and I don't want to tiptoe toward igniting any incivil outbursts.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Jan 21, 2005 8:00:01 PM

Posted by: rtr

"That large swaths of the Left have far less interest in reducing poverty or empowering the urban poor than they have in using them as a springboard to power."

This is easily provable. Just follow the money, every single dollar bill. The money is overwhelmingly paying the salaries of leftists and those who vote for them (and a minimum of that is barely used for actual education of children -- it makes the "robber barons" look like Mother Theresa in comparison as they weren't holding up little kids. This is not to say that there aren't many on the right who get paid from government as well.

Also note by definition of wealth redistribution the left has an interest in increasing poverty and disempowering the middle class. There isn't enough money from raiding the rich alone. I think the middle class has had it with the left. They aren't going to let the left make their schools worse to make other schools better (or make some aspect of their life worse as money has to come from some where).

The left had their opportunity and failed, and that failure is amplified every year (just look at the costs *soaring*). If they have any ideas worth sharing they are going to have to do so without further robbing the already overtaxed electorate. This means proposals that do not increase taxes or transfer wealth. They try to hide their redistribution agenda (please, 40% is *already* redistributed), but there is just not enough money for it anymore.

What the left can do is just come out flat in favor of vouchers, period. Else it's c-ya buh-bye.

Posted by: rtr | Jan 21, 2005 8:26:26 PM

Posted by: neal

Heidi says:

This evidence is anecdotal, but whatever you think the funding situation might be, I dare say it wouldn't seem equal under even rudimentary scrutiny.

Well, we know that the state gives more money to the minority schools, so if you don't want to blame it on the parents or the schools or the money allocations, who are you going to blame it on?

(kid who says) I don't know how to balance equations.

This sounds like an admissions problem. Of course this person is going to fail. People that don't have the basic knowledge to succeed at Berkeley should not go there: it sets them up for failure. What a horrible, mean thing to do. I suppose you could water down the whole Berkeley educational experience, though.

Insofar as your basic point, which is that the parents pick up the slack, I would say this. Parents that care about their kids are going to figure out how to make them successful, or motivated kids are going to figure out how to do interesting stuff.

Since you like anecdotes, I will give you my own.

I went to inner city schools in San Francisco, so I know what it is like there, at least many years ago (ultra liberal parents, who both went to Berkeley). The kids in those schools were not interested in learning at all. They were interested in Muhammid Ali, Michael Jackson, and who was the "baddest" kid, in other words who could beat up the most other kids. Somehow, I don't think this is too conducive to being able to balance equations.

Oh, and this is one reason I don't hold a lot about this "schools don't have enough money." I think it is attitude, and in my opinion, an attitude that is enabled by (well meaning) people that say "Oh, it isn't your fault you were admitted to Berkeley not knowing how to balance equations."

I knew, and I didn't have a spectrometer to help me do it.

Posted by: neal | Jan 21, 2005 8:39:29 PM

Posted by: Steve Marsh (Ethesis)

Washington D.C. schools are the best-funded on a per-student basis in the nation. They are also among the worst performing schools in the nation.

Is that really true?

I'm curious what kind of analysis has gone into what is wrong with Washington, D.C.

Not too long ago, about 50 years ago, it was a relatively sleepy, mostly Republican town. I'm curious what lessons we can draw about anything from that.

Posted by: Steve Marsh (Ethesis) | Jan 21, 2005 8:44:03 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Herzog:

Bearing in mind that I originally used comparative terms (i.e., less this thing, more that thing), yes I believe many if not most of those I mentioned have far less interest in helping the poor than in helping themselves. Do I believe their motives to be unmixed? No, I don’t believe we get unmixed motives in this life. Do I deny that some or even many of them began as dedicated idealists convinced of the probity of their character and the rightness of their cause? Not at all. But do I believe that sooner or later (and it is usually sooner) they come to act self-interestedly when they are aware that their own interests are in direct conflict with the interests of their constituency? You bet.

For whatever little it may be worth in terms of putting my “cynicism” into perspective, I’d say much the same for any number of politicians and political activists on the right. That is, whenever their alleged commitment to free markets or individual liberties or reducing government, etc. conflicts with their desire to stay in Washington and wield power, etc., they turn out to be every bit as much weasels as their leftist counterparts. I have lived among and around the political classes virtually all my life. As I have said before, they’re all weasels, I just happen to prefer (however barely and often while clenching my teeth and holding my nose) my weasels to the other weasels.

Harrington wrote “The Other America” in 1963. His argument was (1) that there was significantly more poverty in America than statistically reported (he may or may not have been right, statistics and definitions being what they are), (2) that this poverty was the result of structural problems within society that created a culture of poverty and (3) that the federal government was both the only institution that could and therefore should act to “end poverty.” Over forty years later, it seems to me not only that a culture of poverty continues to exist, but that it is even more structural and intransigent in large measure because of federal actions.

If you don’t understand how putting checks in the mail leads to a generational continuation of impoverishment, perhaps it is because you are insufficiently aware on a personal level of the culture of dependency such behavior engenders. I mean no offense by that conjecture. But I have seen it quite intimately, even as I have seen far poorer people in other nations vastly happier and more optimistic even with their comparatively worse lot in life.

P.S. – You have never been anything other than entirely civil toward me and if I have ever inadvertently failed to return the courtesy, you should attribute that to the fact that I am not a gentleman as Oscar Wilde defined one; to wit, someone who is never unintentionally rude. My earlier postscript was a weak attempt at humor.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 8:56:44 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

If you don’t understand how putting checks in the mail leads to a generational continuation of impoverishment, perhaps it is because you are insufficiently aware on a personal level of the culture of dependency such behavior engenders. I mean no offense by that conjecture.

I take absolutely none. The evidence I've seen on whether or to what extent a work ethic survives among the poor is mixed. And then we should think about the ways in which many of those who thumb their nose at work are doing something any rational-choice theorist should quickly make sense of: in the worst inner-city neighborhoods, with so few jobs around, and such bad ones at that, what in the world would be the point of valuing work? So too is the evidence I've seen on churning up and down the income distribution: my sense is that there's more of it, generationally and even in the individual life-cycle, than a lot of leftists think, but less of it, on both counts, than a lot on the right think. And of course it varies endlessly with geography, race, &c.

So I return to the official topic of this thread. We could -- and should -- do a better job providing education to those born badly off. And to the extent we finance schools on the local property tax base, I think we are doing lots to reproduce a culture of poverty, just as you think we are when we cultivate a culture of dependence with welfare payments. I suppose everyone agrees that by the time someone is on welfare, say for more than a very short transition period, something has badly misfired. And I suppose more or less everyone agrees that better education would make it less likely that people would find themselves in that fix. No, it's not a magic bullet. There aren't any in this domain. But it would help, and it is clearly required by equality of opportunity, an ideal we cherish.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Jan 21, 2005 9:16:35 PM

Posted by: rtr

The floor is at 4 and there is no limit on the ceiling hitting the maximum of 10. This is four times greater than the proper minimum of 1, or 10%. Ten percent was historically requested by the church for donation. This sounds a proper limit for government theft. It can't go any further before economics cause people to not work, and let others do the work for them, which doesn't work when too many people do it. We have now become a nation of big gamblers (not risks takers but statistical suckers), buy the lottery tickets, pick the stocks, get the Harvard degree, pile on the debt, watch the world series of poker.

There are huge problems coming in the pipe line. Where are all these social workers graduating every year supposed to find jobs? Look at supply and demand for jobs in academia. The lawyers? Only the marginally less talented go to medical school these days. Who wants to work twice as hard for half the pay? What percentage of the work force is now paid by the government?

Posted by: rtr | Jan 21, 2005 9:29:25 PM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury

Given the amount of money the Bush administration has allocated to education in the last 5 years, let alone the states (see the links I posted above), is a focus on spending simply behind the curve? Could it be that the issue isn't how much money is being spent, but how well it is being spent?

The Democrats have often been accused of "throwing money at a problem." Here is a case of the Republicans throwing money at a problem(justifiably, I think), and yet the Democratic response has been to circle their wagons around the status quo -- the educational establishment that currently fails so many of the urban and rural poor. Consider the hostility to the idea of even prototype voucher programs, as a prime example.

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Jan 21, 2005 10:06:52 PM

Posted by: Mark O

No matter how much money you spend on the schools in the "impoverished" districts, if the parents abdicate their responsibility to raise their children rightly, it won't matter a hill of beans and you'll be throwing good money after bad. In fact, the more your schooling tries to supplement and replace what is more properly considered the role of the parent, the more the marginal parent will be inclined to mail it in.

Posted by: Mark O | Jan 21, 2005 11:26:09 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Herzog:

Agreed. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect specific policy details in a discussion (or even in this blog in general) where the author tends to want to address principles. Even so, without such details the ideological divide is such that when someone says let’s help poor kids and segues into a discussion of taxes, it is difficult not to think at first blush “Oh dear, here we go again.” Moreover, without such details to consider and weigh and analyze, it is difficult to respond beyond a visceral nod of acknowledgement that problems exist and we really should find ways to solve them.

I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that you were one of those power grubbing weasels and, for that matter, my litany of what I believe to be not only failed but harmful programs and the motives behind many of their political advocates was in response to Marek, who described himself as an “old-fashioned lefty.” I’ve had my fill of old-fashioned leftism, thank you very much.

Indeed, and without rehashing whether the liberals you know are “those sorts of people,” one of my harshest criticisms of the left in the last quarter decade is my sense of their enduring failure to acknowledge that the attempted solutions of yesterday didn’t work all that well (if at all), that however well intended they were and are they nonetheless now represent new sorts of structural barriers to the alleviation of poverty, and that altogether too many of them are literally invested (both psychologically and often in terms of their own “rice bowls”) in the perpetuation of those unsuccessful programs. You may disagree. Many here certainly will. But the left as a purely political force has been damned close to unremitting in its opposition to empowerment zones, charter schools, vouchers, work-fare, etc.

As you noted, arguing counterfactual conditionals is tricky business. For example, it is true that there has been a rise in the number of middle class and even upper-middle class African Americans in the past forty years. But it is also true, if I recall the data correctly, that (Harrington aside) that trend began at the end of World War II, not in the 60s. It is unclear, therefore, whether federal anti-poverty programs were significantly instrumental in that growth or largely incidental. (It is not, by contrast, unclear that the civil rights movement was hugely instrumental. Clearly, it was.) For another, affirmative action as it currently exists, questions of principle aside, is equally difficult to assess in terms of its overall effects. As I read the data, it has worked quite well in giving the sons and daughters of African American upper-middle class families a comparative advantage over their white neighbors in getting into Berkeley, Michigan, Princeton, etc. It certainly has not seemed to do much for those poor urban kids who, even if they do make it to college, tend to suffer the sorts of experiences Heidi discussed.

My approach to a solution, for what it’s worth, to the problem of urban poverty is to make the cities places where middle and upper-middle class families (of any race or ethnic origin) will want to live and raise families again. Sending ‘foreign aid,’ so to speak, is never going to get the job done. But I also think it will require completely dismantling some of those programs I mentioned and depending more on local communities to solve their local problems with their own local resources without the federal government and all those currently vested interests micro-managing and interfering and obstructing such local efforts every step of the way. That necessitates a different sort of redistribution of wealth and power, away from the federal government, back to the states and localities and, especially, the pockets and political autonomy of private citizens.

There will be no quick fix no matter what approach is taken. But the status quo is equally unacceptable to both of us.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 21, 2005 11:43:16 PM

Posted by: CDC

Don Herzog wrote, "Money and class size aren't everything in running a good school, but it would be simple lunacy to infer that they don't matter."

My children attend a school that has minimal facilities, very weak funding, is all but ignored by our local school board and easily outperforms the other schools by any measure worth mentioning. The parents know and like each other. We have known our children's classmates since they were toddlers and most of our families have at least one parent who talks to our kids' teachers two to four times a week.

Parents routinely come to school to share a cafeteria lunch with their kids and the kid's friends. The friends compete to sit with the parent. On field trips the parents usually outnumber the students. In the winter we take fridays off to ski together.

The kids are beautifully poised, intelligent, academically proficient and well behaved. They are not meek or subdued, they simply know how to interact on a human level.

The parents are mostly university faculty, professionals of one type or another, eccentrics like myself and working folks who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to see their children be the people they are capable of being.

The school is a Lutherin school. I am not a Lutherin. I am not even a Christian. I am agnostic. Many of the parents are agnostic. Nobody seems to care.

I cannot imagine a funding formula that would give children raised by Snoop Dogg, Eminem (whether plain OR peanut), and the sanctimoniously self-interested NEA "equality of opportunity" to kids whose parents and teachers actually care enough to take responsibility for their kids' educations.

Posted by: CDC | Jan 22, 2005 12:54:10 AM

Posted by: Achillea

Having worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District for the past decade, I think I can say I'm familiar with California schools (at least of the inner city variety). I can't give you numbers, but the following have been my impressions and experiences vis-a-vis various points that have been made (or overlooked) on this thread.

There are several factors that go into educational success or failure. Some schools are better equipped than others. Some teachers are better than others. Some families value education more than others. Some neighborhoods are more conducive to learning than others. And some students simply start out behind, be it via mental retardation, an initial language barrier, a physical disability such as blindness, etc. No single factor is exclusively responsible, or even predominantly responsible, in every case. An excellent teacher (such as Jaime Escalante, to name a well-known one) can overcome the effects inadequate school facilities, a crappy neighborhood, and indifferent parents. Parents who value learning (Bret, for example) can overcome the effects of poor teachers, school, and neighborhood. Etc. Any effort to establish a minimum level of opportunity needs to address all four of those factors. More and better teachers. A way to assess the infrastructure needs of schools and address them. Crime reduction. Parent education and involvement.

As far as throwing money at things goes, no one program works for everyone. Some students benefit most from the academic challenges of the Gifted and Advanced Placement programs. Some are at-risk and benefit from safety-net programs like Healthy Start or Special Education (more on Special Ed. in a minute). Then there are specialized grant programs like Nell Soto/Teresa Hughes (parent involvement), Perkins (tech/business education), ROP (vocational education), to name just a few. Every now and then, a scandal or lawsuit will result in a temporary influx of specifically-targeted funds (class-size reduction, restroom cleanup, etc.). Depending on who's running them, can can range from models of efficiency to totally useless, but rarely are they worse than useless.

The exceptions are programs that essentially foster helplessness or laziness, and chief among those are Special Ed and Bilingual Education. Now, Special Ed isn't totally without merit. There are some students with very real, significant disabilities such as deafness, blindness, mental retardation, mental illness, autism, etc., who need specialized instruction. But Special Ed. has also become the dumping ground and refuge of many just looking for a cop out. Bilingual Education is pure boondoggle, putting into practice the notion that great lengths should be gone to to make it as unnecessary as humanly possible to develop even a minimal level of ability with the English language, preferably stretching the process out for years.

And now, it's getting late. Tomorrow -- testing.

Posted by: Achillea | Jan 22, 2005 2:23:43 AM

Posted by: neal

Don Herzog writes:

in the worst inner-city neighborhoods, with so few jobs around, and such bad ones at that, what in the world would be the point of valuing work?

Is this really that hard to figure out? Stop paying people to do nothing, and they will figure out how to live. There are so many jobs in this country that we have a tacit agreement to allow a huge number of people to cross a hostile border in order to make money picking crops, working construction, and cleaning homes.

In fact, when I think about your attitude, I find it almost arrogant, as if these people are so helpless they can't figure out how to live. I'm much more optimistic than that.

Posted by: neal | Jan 22, 2005 2:56:11 AM

Posted by: neal

Any effort to establish a minimum level of opportunity needs to address all four of those factors. More and better teachers. A way to assess the infrastructure needs of schools and address them. Crime reduction. Parent education and involvement.

I think it is much easier than that. People don't value education. If kids and parents valued education, this problem would go away. How do you do it? Simple. Tie rewards to work.

As I think about it, most of the confusion about these and other liberal notions will rectify themselves in the next 20 years or so, when the US is no longer able to borrow money from hard working cultures to subsidize its massive social programs.

Posted by: neal | Jan 22, 2005 3:06:39 AM

Posted by: oliver

DAR, where were the Republicans during the shaping and subsidizing of all these federal programs that you grade so harshly? (BTW thanks for the marks for civil rights; can we have some extra credit for the New Deal?) Are you suggesting that these social experiments consisted of the left writing out a wish list and the right giving whatever was desired? There is such things in this world as failed comprimises and few things outside the lab represent pure experiments. You also act as if "the left" has no basis in evidence to hesistate toward such free-marketish measures for urban improvement as entrprise zones, but that's absurd while our data in the form of socio-economic cause-and-effect through the centuries are wide open to interpretation and widely disagreed upon among scholars.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 22, 2005 9:50:44 AM

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