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School reform critics display lazy, hypocritical arguments

As the Louisiana education train rumbles on, disturbing the ideological prejudices of the political left and disrupting traditional power bases, in their desperation opponents sometimes don their tinfoil hats and claim black helicopter sightings through their faith that somehow some kind of untoward influence is manifesting as a result of the world becoming something they didn’t make. Recognize that such claims simultaneously demonstrate maximal fatuousness as well as stunning moral myopia that leads to selective and unsubstantiated outrage.

For example, recently a group called StudentsFirst hailed Louisiana’s education policies as the most pro-student in the country. The group ranks highest policies that establish education choice provision and decentralized solutions for it.

Naturally, this sent the sentinels of the one-size-fits-all, government monopoly model of education provision into fits, and one complaint attempted to be used to discredit the laurels was that the group donated money to candidates running for the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Hence, the constipated argument goes, the group goads candidates into supporting their position, and then rewards those elected by lauding them.

Leaving aside the striking ignorance of the argument in this specific instance – BESE makes policy in these areas only through implementation while it’s the Legislature that actual does the heavy lifting and sets all of the parameters BESE must follow, and neither of StudentsFirst’s state  or national organizations gave to any legislative candidates – note that political science research (mainly done in the area of Congressional behavior) demonstrates that seldom are representatives influenced by money not just as the sole, but even as a peripheral, reason for voting the way they do. Rather, the true relationship of money to officials is that it flows to those officials sympathetic to a group’s view, so it makes obvious sense that a politicians who favor expanded choice in schooling would get backing from a group that believes the same.

A related argument is built on the age-old observation that policy-makers may receive donations from potential contractors of the state, and this then influences their decisions on which contractors to award. The newer twist on this in the area of education policy is that with the erosion of the government-monopoly model, potential contractors through donations are “paying off” policy-makers in order to pry open the system, with the insinuation that it is not really concern with good education policy that drives support of system openness, but greed for campaign bucks to keep the power-hungry in office.

Naturally enough, this conspiratorial mindset completely ignores the fact that procedures and evaluative measures are in place to make sure that objective performance standards are met. Let’s say in fact that such a grand conspiracy exists full of licentious individuals. Regardless of these evil-doers’ moral worth, if their policies get the job done, it’s good policy; personal motives are irrelevant. That’s the beauty of the system of representative democracy in America, separated power and chock full of checks and balances – it can take even the least public-spirited, most selfish individual motives and still maximize the chances that, if there’s any good policy in this equation, it will come out while sinister policy gets vetoed.

And the fact that this policy of greater openness in provision by definition further minimizes bad policy outcomes. The simple behavioral fact of human beings is if they are forced to justify that their performance exceeds others and/or objective standards to receive rewards, all have every incentive to perform maximally. Contrast this with the closed system advocated by those who allege conspiracies resulting from a more open system, where its very nature that insulates its members from accountability and responsibility for consequences make it much easier for these very conspiracies to flourish and thus to create poor policy outcomes.

And also illuminates for us the incredible hypocrisy voiced by these established interests now threatened by change. They had created for themselves a cocoon in which special interests such as unions, those who saw schools as primarily employment agencies, as forces of ideological change, and as refuges from the pressures of private sector achievement, could create a regime that emphasized maximum transfer of taxpayer wealth for minimal work and talent contribution, putting this imperative ahead of children’s right to a quality education. Incredibly, they criticize the new environment which, by its nature, permits it openness to force more accountability and combats exactly the actual malaise that they have supported. If ever people needed to look into a mirror to see the problem, it is these disingenuous folks.

Like BESE member Lottie Beebe, who insinuated at its last meeting that because some other members received campaign contributions from contractors this was influencing their decisions in some undefined way. In her campaign, she accepted $2,500 from the Louisiana Association of Educators, $150 from the Iberia Principals Association, and picked up LAE in-kind donations worth another $1,500. In fact, of the money she raised both methods, this $4,150 represented about 80 percent of all the resources she took in (excepting $1,500 of her own). If there’s any single member of BESE who, by the numbers, appears to be bought and totally paid for, in her case by the educational establishment (being a public school careerist, whose career flourished in the closed system, this thereby making her a card-carrying member of this establishment), it’s Beebe.

She may wish to cast all of the stones she likes from her glass house, but the puerility remains of the argument that the motives of those trying to open up Louisiana education to greater accountability to improve performance must be suspect while somehow motives of those wishing to keep the system closed automatically are considered sacrosanct and pure as the driven snow. Such intellectual laziness by critics of reform contributes in no meaningful way to the education debate.

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