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June 22, 2014

Who's Progressive?

I'm far from the first to note how the political left in this country has increasingly become the party of defense of the status quo, while conservatives take on the role of proponents and agents of radical change...but it's worth doing. From education to entitlements and tax policy, a political movement that labels itself "progressive" refuses to budge from failed or failing policy positions. Meanwhile, the push for something resembling actual progress in these important areas of public policy is coming mostly from the right.

It's almost as if the "progressive" movement has less to do with societal progress, and more to do with the expansion and consolidation of their own political power. Labeling has been a problem for leftists for decades, and they are nowadays reduced to recycling old ones. The word "liberal" has been largely abandoned as their self-identification, without acknowledging that it was policy outcomes and not faulty messaging that dragged the label into disrepute. (Besides, it had that troubling association with its root word "liberty")

Of course the word "progressive" has its own set of troubling associations, but those things are so 20th Century, and most Americans contentedly basking in the label today are unaware of its intellectual DNA. It is quite enough for most of them to hear the word "progress" in the handle, and infer that anyone in opposition to their preferred policies must be against progress...and as such, a reactionary and self-evidently wrong.

In practice though, the left's professed fealty to reason, empiricism and progress often conflicts with its love of power, and in those battles, power tends to trump practical results. The ever-expanding State often appears to be less interested in providing services for citizens than in assuring its self-preservation. (see: Veterans Administration)

Baby boomer leftists who cut their teeth in (often romanticized) opposition to The Man, now find that in the Obama Era, they are The Man....and they like it just fine, thank you. The Tea Party infuriates them because one of its guiding principles is respect for the constitutional limits on state power. There seems to be something of a cognitive dissonance to their anti-Tea Party fury as well. The political left has a hard time dealing with the idea of a genuine grassroots populism afoot in the land without them as its vanguard. Remember guys....you're The Man now.

Nowhere is the disconnect between actual progress and statist policy more striking than in public K-12 education. Preservation of the one-size-fits-all public education cartel takes priority over positive outcomes for students, especially the poor and minority students for whom the left poses as champions. Teachers unions remain bitterly opposed to charter schools and homeschooling programs, even as those modest reforms have taken shape in response to the manifest failures of public school systems.

Kevin Williamson's provocative 2013 book has a particularly strong chapter on education, suggesting as one of its themes that the public education cartel mistakes its customers for its product.

A functional market-based education system would properly recognize that its customers are students, and that its products are various kinds of education, ranging from classical liberal arts studies to forms of specific occupational training. Being political institutions, schools operate under the theory that their customer is the state - or "society" at large - and that the product is a national workforce tailored to meet national needs - which is to say, political needs.

Common Core has every appearance of another step in the direction of maintaining the government school monopoly. No sensible person objects to increased rigor in education, but implicit in the idea of national (or even state) standards is the notion that there is a "standard" education that all children should receive. Here's Williamson again, from the aforementioned book, on what a market-based system might look like:

...it is a mark of the absurdity of our current thinking that we imagine a single form of K-12 education is appropriate for nearly every child in the country - we have 900 kinds of shampoo, and one outdated 19th-century model of schooling. Rather than a unified national education regime, we should expect to see in education - as in telecommunications, transportation, food, housing, banking and finance, and other normal products - a diversity of systems reflecting the diversity of the learning population, each serving a specific customer base, each oriented towards different outcomes.

I find myself regularly engaged with left-leaning friends, many of whom are teachers, about alternative education models, from charter schools to private schools to school voucher programs. They will usually dismiss all of these as parts of the problem rather than steps toward common sense reforms.

Vouchers in particular are the villains for these folks, diverting as they do "public" dollars into private enterprises. "So, I guess you think private schools should be abolished?" I ask. Their response is usually something like, "Well, no...not really". To which I can only retort, "I see...you just think only rich people should be able to take advantage of them." This is when they like to turn the conversation to sports or the weather.

This anti-private school attitude is reflected in silliness like this Slate piece, lecturing parents that they are "bad people" if they avail themselves of private schools. There is merit to the argument that public schools would improve if societal and political elites were forced to send their own children to them. The catch is, as the author admits..."it could take generations". In other words, parents should sacrifice the educations of their own children...and probably those of their grandchildren, in order to gamble on the increased accountability of the system somewhere down the line...for someone else's children...maybe. Is it any wonder that "progressives" like Barack Obama still send their own kids to Sidwell Friends?

Williamson reinforces the argument that political elites could, and probably would insist that the quality of public schools improved if they themselves had no alternatives. But they do...and not enough citizens are bothered by their hypocrisy. "The private schools serve a critical political function that is necessary to the broader government-school regime, and therefore are most accurately considered a part of the public school system, not an alternative to it." He continues:

The political function of private schools is to give the wealthy and the politically powerful ready alternatives to the dysfunctional monopoly of school systems, ensuring that the very parties who are best positioned to achieve meaningful reforms are those who have the least incentive to do so, and those who suffer the worst of the public schools' dysfunction are those who have the least economic or political ability to do anything about it. There is a kind of genius at work in that.

Practically no one objects to the fact that the wealthy and the politically powerful exempt themselves from the public school monopoly. [...] It is only when reforms threaten to give the poor and those without political influence access to alternatives that the State begins to insist that its monopoly must be enforced. At the very moment Barack Obama was enrolling his children at Sidwell Friends, he was maneuvering to eliminate the D.C. Hope Scholarship program, a very popular initiative that gave thousands of uniformly poor, and mostly black inner-city Washington students alternatives to what are some of the least effective, not to mention most dangerous, public schools in the country.

The answer offered by public schools apologists to this educational dysfunction is, ever and always, more funding. That there has never been a correlation between dollars spent and better educational outcomes is a reality they simply choose to ignore. The Washington D.C. public schools are among the most expensive in the country, and as noted above, also among the worst performing.

Are the policies of the self-styled "progressives" then really oriented toward societal progress? Or are they serving other masters, like politically powerful public employee unions, who donate almost exclusively to Democratic politicians? Are the policy proposals of conservatives...to include voucher programs to help poor children escape underperforming schools, actually more progressive? I contend that they are.


Next: Who's Progressive? - Entitlements and Tax Policy