Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jebucation Follies (Part I: The Conservative Conundrum)

I give Jeb! Bush credit for one thing-- sincerity. While other politicians have adopted and disinherited reformster policies quicker than you can say "political expediency," Bush has stuck to his guns, even when those guns are aimed squarely at his own feet. Even when he's dead wrong about everything.

Now Bush, whose campaign seems designed to spin rich backers money into vapor, has gone back to the education well one more time with a comprehensive-ish education plan. It really is worth a look, as long as you think of it less as "Jeb! Bush's Bold Plan for US Education" and more "A Compendium of Current Reformster Greatest Hits." I'll be using the "backgrounder" that EdWeek kindly posted on their site. Let's wade in, shall we?

I'm going to address the plan in two parts. Here in Part I, I'll take a look at the lump of self-contradictory principle that is the foundation of Bush's plan. In Part II, we'll get into the nuts and bolts.

Bush opens with a general statement of his guiding theory of change. Here's the critical paragraph:

Governor Bush’s goal is to ensure that all Americans, no matter their background or zip code, graduate from high school, college or career ready, and have the opportunity to pursue affordable post-secondary education or training. Achieving this goal requires a complete overhaul of a system from one that serves bureaucracies to one that serves the needs of families and students. Empowering individuals doesn’t require additional money or programs designed by Washington. What we need is a national focus on fueling innovation and providing quality choices for every student in this country.

We might examine the question of whether or not the current education system serves bureaucracy, and if so, how much of that bureaucracy is the one that Jeb! and other reformsters have put in place over the last decade. The notion that we can fix education without spending another cent (he later calls his plan "budget nuetral") is just foolish, as is the notion that fueling innovation and choice will magically transform the education landscape. Jeb! did his best to use charters to transform the Florida education landscape, and after all these years, there are no innovative successes to point to. 

But Bush's statement of principles lays out exactly where the cognitive dissonance lies.

This platform reflects the fundamental belief that every student can learn and that parents — not bureaucrats should make decisions for their child.

Except, of course, that bureaucrats are the ones who will make the decisions about what choices are available, whether parents want those choices or not. Every single implementation of a choice system in this country has involved bureaucrats and policy makers descending on a community and telling that community that they must have choice, and they must have the choices that will be chosen for them by their Betters, even if democratic processes like locally-elected school boards have to be suspended to do it.

It is the great conservative puzzle at the center of reform-- we must empower parents and community members, and we must do it by taking away their elected school boards and telling them what choices they must have.

This paradox runs throughout Bush's plan. His four guiding principles are

* Education decisions should be made as close to the student as possible.
* Choice -- of all kinds -- should be expanded across the board
* Transparency is essential to choice, quality, and results-based accountability
* Innovation requires flexibility

So after giving us Point #1, Jeb! follows with three more points that delineate decisions that will be made at the state and federal level. Choices will be expected and expanded, irregardless of what the locals want. Transparency will provide information about school quality-- as quality is defined by federal authorities. The fourth point is baloney-- Jeb! wants to promise that the feds will hand over money without strings or rules-- except that we just said everyone has to meet accountability standards. One of the ongoing ideas for conservative reformsters has been, "Hey, the taxpayers gave you a big pile of money, and we're entitled to know how you spent it." It's not an unreasonable position, but it hardly meshes with conservative laissez faire principles, and Bush is kidding himself with his "We'll just hand out block grants of Title money and let the states do as they will."

Conservative writer Rick Hess has often observed "The problem is that Washington conservatives can have trouble tackling education in a manner that is faithful to principle." But as long as you have, on the federal level, a particular vision of  how educational freedom and quality are supposed to look, you have a conservative conundrum. There's no good, traditional conservative way to say, "We are giving you freedom, and you will get it the way we want you to, and you will get the results that we define as success."

For all the conservative love for choice and freedom, it never seems to include the choice and freedom to do things that conservatives believe are Very Wrong, or to say, "We will pick our own choices to choose from, thanks." That's in part because the very idea of school choice is fundamentally flawed.

First, nobody wants choice. Rich kids don't have an advantage because they have choice-- they have an advantage because they have access to an excellent education. People want a good school. That's it. If someone gets a restaurant meal that is undercooked and cold, they don't say, "Bring me a dozen mediocre meals to chose from." They want what they want, done right.

Second, choice is not "budget neutral." When facing a tight budget, no school district says, "No need to shut down any buildings. It wouldn't save us any money." You can't operate several sets of schools (with several sets of administrators) for the cost of one. Anybody who tries to set up a choice system without a plan to fully fund it is smoking something.

Third, choice as currently conceived, disenfranchises a huge part of the electorate and cuts social responsibility out of the picture. If you don't have a child, you don't have a say in how tax dollars are spent. Choicer "it's the family's choice" rhetoric only goes so far-- nobody is seriously suggesting that vouchers be literal vouchers that students can use to go to school, buy a car, or take a vacation in Europe. Choice never seems to include "I choose no school at all." Choicers haven't suggested doing away with compulsory education, but they can't admit that it's because the students have a level of responsibility to the country that's paying for their education, because that would mean admitting that families are not the only stakeholders in education, which would conflict with the "the money belongs to the family" theory.

But even if we get past those, we arrive again at the conservative conundrum-- if you allow freedom and choice, you have to accept that people may choose things you don't like, including NOT having a bunch of choices. Conservatives-- and Bush is no exception here-- keep calling for a system of imposed choice, which is a big screaming oxymoron.

More to the point, a system of imposed choice is a conservative contradiction, a fundamental violation of traditional conservative principles. For that reason, everything that's going to follow in Part II is actually moot. Bush's foundation is not solid, and the house he tries to build upon it is doomed to fail.


  1. Nobody can ensure that everyone graduates from high school. That is ridiculous. But, of course, No Child Left Behind promised the same sort of nonsense.