Public officials with a dim view of the public good

What do former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and North Carolina state Rep. Tim Moffitt have in common? They both take a rather dim view of public education.

A Buncombe County Republican and a member of the state's House Select Committee on Early Childhood Education Improvement, Moffitt received a flood of election-year criticism for recent comments about public education. Moffitt is one of over three dozen North Carolina politicians affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded organization that promoting its ghost-written model legislation in states across the country and whose goals in education are, according to critics, "ideological — creating a system where schools do not provide for everyone — and profit-driven." The Charlotte Observer quoted Moffitt saying in the education committee on which he sits, "I am very suspect of early childhood education. I am very suspect of education in general."

So is Santorum. Last March, Santorum suggested to New Hampshire voters that Democrats use public schools like a "drug dealer outside a school yard" as a means of "drugging" children into dependency on government. According to a New York Times report on Saturday, Santorum told the crowd at a campaign stop in Ohio, "... the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic."

One wonders what America conservatives such as Moffitt and Santorum actually live in and wish to conserve. The Los Angeles Times reminded its readers: "Aside from schools for the children of military personnel, the federal government does not actually operate schools. Most U.S. schools are supported primarily by state or local funding, or a combination of the two."

Santorum's calling public schools anachronistic recalls how, in justifying the George W. Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" regime, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda rendered Geneva Convention restrictions on questioning prisoners “obsolete,” and other provisions “quaint.” Like state constitutions that call for the establishment and support of public schools and state universities, perhaps.

John Adams (a tea party favorite) wrote in 1785, "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves."

To that purpose, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (passed under the Articles of Confederation prior to ratification of the U.S. Constitution) called for new states formed from what is now the American Midwest to encourage "schools and the means of education," and the Enabling Act of 1802 signed by President Thomas Jefferson (for admitting the same Ohio that Santorum visited on Saturday) required -- as a condition of statehood -- the establishment of schools and public roads, funded in part by the sale of public lands. Enabling acts for later states followed the 1802 template, establishing permanent funds for public schools, federal lands for state buildings, state universities and public works projects (canals, irrigation, etc.), and are reflected in state constitutions from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The practice continued up to and including the enabling act for the admission of Hawaii in 1959 as America's 50th state, for example (emphasis added):

(f) The lands granted to the State of Hawaii by subsection (b) of this section and public lands retained by the United States under subsections (c) and (d) and later conveyed to the State under subsection (e), together with the proceeds from the sale or other disposition of any such lands and the income therefrom, shall be held by said State as a public trust for the support of the public schools and other public educational institutions, for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians, as defined in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, 1920, as amended, for the development of farm and home ownership on as widespread a basis as possible for the making of public improvements, and for the provision of lands for public use. Such lands, proceeds, and income shall be managed and disposed of for one or more of the foregoing purposes in such manner as the constitution and laws of said State may provide, and their use for any other object shall constitute a breach of trust for which suit may be brought by the United States. The schools and other educational institutions supported, in whole or in part out of such public trust shall forever remain under the exclusive control of said State; and no part of the proceeds or income from the lands granted under this Act shall be used for the support of any sectarian or denominational school, college, or university.

Sometime between 1959 and now, Moffitt/Santorum-style conservatives who swore oaths to uphold the constitutions and laws of the United States and their home states decided that providing public education, an American tradition -- nay, requirement -- dating from the earliest days of the republic became "suspect" and "anachronistic."

The animus towards public education suggests their fealty might lie elsewhere. The late Molly Ivins slyly observed that in conservative Texas, the job of "gummint" is to "legislate, regulate and tax in order to maintain the healthy bidness climate." Business-friendly politicians tout their private sector experience as qualification for holding positions of public trust, and garner financial and political support from the business lobby, yet reject the same bigger-is-better, economies-of-scale, increased-efficiency approach when it comes to not-for-profit public institutions such as public education. In Ohio, Santorum criticized public schools as "big factories." But the education industry's objection is really not size, cost, or lack of accountability, but lack of middle-man profit. Businesses such as Santorum-rival Mitt Romney's Bain Capital "worship efficiency at any cost," writes Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. But it is one particular kind of efficiency:

What Bain Capital, and firms like it, do is try to increase the efficiency of the companies they buy. They try to get more with less — to eliminate waste. They are not interested either in creating jobs or in destroying them. Nor are they interested in improving the lives of consumers by making products and services better and cheaper. They are interested in profit — for themselves and their shareholders.

As reported here and here and here, that same hunger for private profit is behind the widespread assault on public education from education industry and "reform" advocates. It is not about innovation, efficiency, smaller government, lower taxes, deficits, choice, or the Constitution. It is about getting investors a piece of the trillion-dollar K-12 public education action, "the Big Enchilada," as Jonathan Kozol wrote for Harper's:

It is this prospect - and the even more appealing notion that companies that start by managing these schools might at some future point achieve the right, through changes in state laws, to own the schools as well - that helps explain why EMOs [Education management Organizations] like Edison, which has yet to turn a profit, nonetheless attract vast sums of venture capital. The "big enchilada" represented by the corporate invasion of public schools, even if it takes place only in progressive stages, is sufficiently enticing to investors to keep the money flowing in anticipation of a time when private corporations will not merely nibble at the edges of the public system but will devour it altogether.

That may not serve the public good. It may not create jobs, improve education or improve the lives of students. Or in any way resemble the founders' vision. But it might net the right people a lot of public money.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece referred to Rep. Tim Moffitt as chair of the House Select Committee on Early Childhood Education Improvement. He is a member.

(Cross-posted from Scrutiny Hooligans.)

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