Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A War for Education

Those of us who write about education often play the what if game, trying to envision one cool ideal or another, and it's usually a policy tweak here or a structure kluge there.

But you know what would be cool? If we treated public education like war.

When we decide as a country that war is necessary, we do not screw around. We decided to fight World War II and in six years we spent almost 300 billion dollars-- and that's 300 1940 dollars. We spent over a full whopping third of our GDP. We scraped together every cent from under every couch cushion in the country.

And even when we aren't exactly all on the same page, our leaders find a way-- even an unscrupulous underhanded way. We were so sneak about Vietnam that without even declaring a war, we managed to spend 100-200 billion (depending on who's counting) over eleven years. That's approaching one trillion 2016 dollars.

And back then we were spendthrifts, drunk on cheap oil and prosperity that seemed indefatigable. Fast forward to, say, Iraq. A more frugal nation with a bigger political concern about things lie budget deficits was sold a $100 billion, two year war. We got eight years at maybe over a trillion. Maybe a lot more.

Here are some things that almost nobody said about these wars:

We just can't afford it. Nobody much suggested that wars should be fought with fewer troops or resources because it was just too pricey. Nobody said that we should pull out because we had already spent too much money.

We can't solve the problem by throwing money at it. We didn't hear the argument that we weren't seeing more ground won for each dollar spent, so let's just spend less.

We should provide several different choices of armies to fight the war, so that soldiers and generals could just have a choice  of whom to fight with. The pentagon didn't argue that we should have several privately-owned, tax-dollar financed armies in the field. Granted, there have been private armies out there-- but they haven't been fighting for all of us, have they.

I know this is not a perfect analogy. We have cut corners when it comes to some of the spending needed to fully support our soldiers, and in fact, the weight of fighting a war falls disproportionately on the non-wealthy families of our country. And while we love spending money on tech like drones and bombs, we are slow to address real human costs-- our spending on veterans is not just corner-cutting but corner-lopping-off-entirely.

But still-- when we're playing the wouldn't-it-be-nice fantasy game.... wouldn't it be nice if we approached education like a war? When we talk about "wars" in policy, like the war on crime, or poverty, or drugs, we're not taking about a metaphor of violence so much as a metaphor of commitment.To say we'll make war on something is to say that we'll do whatever it takes.

And if there's one thing our policy leaders never, ever say about education, it's "We'll do whatever it takes, spend whatever it costs, commit whatever resources are called for."

Why not? Sure, there would be waste and excess and $150 #2 pencils, but we tolerate that sort of thing with real war, considering it part of the cost of Getting the Job Done. You can't say it's because resources aren't infinite and we can only afford to spend so much, because that doesn't restrain us one whit when i comes time to throw another hundred billion dollars into Iraq or Afghanistan. No, I suspect the truth is less appealing. We just don't value education and children all that much. Or at least-- and I'm afraid this may really be it-- not ALL children. I mean, for my own kids, I really will spend whatever it takes (check that college debt total) and do whatever I can for my own kids, but Those Peoples' Children? I don't really want to spend a bunch of my money on Those Peoples' Children.

When we go to war, money is no object to protect me-- and since you and I are within the same borders, I guess you get the benefit as well. But in the War for Education, there are many more boundary lines drawn, and if I draw them carefully enough, I can make sure that the army I spend money on fights only for me. You go get your own army; stop trying to mooch off of mine. The biggest problem with this approach-- before you know it, not only are you not fighting a war for education, but you're also fighting a war against Those Peoples' Children.


  1. The war on ignorance? Would it be more successful than the war on drugs? Fighting Nazis was a bit more straightforward than fighting ignorance would be.

  2. Excellent, as usual. Thank you, sir.

  3. I'm not sure your analogy holds water, mainly because defense and education budgets make money for people in different ways.

    In part, there are lobbyists for big DoD budgets mostly because of all the defense contractors. But there's also the "War is a Racket" idea that's been around since before Smedley D. Butler said it in 1935, putting money in the pockets of corporate interests through warmongering.

    Plus, believe it or not, politicians are coming after military retirements too, and much like the NEA, veterans associations are mostly just letting them (minus some token grumbling):

    Maybe it's not as bad as teaching, but it's probably not as rosy as you think.

    1. No money for vets, but money for wars and defense contractors. No money for public schools, but money for corporations in the EdBiz.

  4. We spend over $630 billion on K-12 public education in the country annually. We also spend around $500 billion on post secondary education annually. So we already spend more than a trillion dollars a year on education.

    Source for public k-12 expenditure:

    for post secondary expenditure:

    1. In 2015, 4.2% of the federal budget, or $154 billion, was spent on education. Sixteen percent of the federal budget, or $602 billion, was spent on wars and defense. That doesn't include money allocated for veterans.