Thursday, December 4, 2008

Limited Government vs. Privatization

I consider myself to be a traditionalist and an independent. As such, I tend to disagree often with liberals and conservatives alike--and what do those brands really mean anymore? Generic boxes in which to store our ideologies, confine our thinking. Conservatism is a disposition. Well, perhaps liberalism is, too. As a traditionalist, I like to look at change with caution, even change in the reverse direction. Modernity is a mixed bag, and tradition, after all, has in every culture been a living thing, evolving over time.

The problem with modernity in many ways is quite simply the pace of change, especially in technology. It often outdistances our better judgment, confounds us. We have sudden new power, new control, new ways to communicate or entertain. The leaps made between one generation and the next are larger than ever before. Rampant capitalism and individualism are at once causes and reactions of this change of pace.

As a traditionalist I believe in the value of limited government--but not necessarily in the endless expansion of private enterprise. For instance, the privatization of prisons, I believe, has lead to the capitalization of crime. There is a capital interest in, for instance, keeping prisoner rates high--even for non-violent offenders. Thus the prison industry itself becomes a lobbyist for tough drug laws on marijuana use and other such nonsense. Millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted on making criminals out of stoners--resources that could be used to better protect our borders, put actual criminals behind bars, and so forth. Of course, pot-related crime is inevitable so long as it is a criminal offense, and thus private prisons can depend on a steady stream of guests to fill their coffers.

Also, there is the question of school-choice, and particularly school vouchers. I'm against school vouchers for a number of reasons. First of all, I believe that if private industry is as capable as it claims, then they should be able to provide quality affordable school in competition with public schools. Taking money from the public school system makes it less competitive and gives private industry a leg up it really doesn't deserve. Quite honestly, if we ever move to such a system it can only be done ethically by changing the admittance process to lottery rather than merit, which sort of defeats the point. This is how charter schools do it, and it seems to work. But charter schools have a slightly different target audience than private schools.

And if private schools really are as cheap as the proponents say they are, then why should the government need to subsidize the parents at all? It seems to me that vouchers would allow the parents who could afford to send their students to those schools already to save a few bucks at the expense of public schools. For instance, if there are 100 children enrolled in town A's private school this year, and next year school vouchers go into effect for $3000 a pop, then automatically $300,000 is drained from the public school budget. There are still only 100 kids at the private school. There are the same number of kids going to public school, too. Only now those kids have less money.

In the end the effect will be manifold.

First, public schools will face budget cuts, layoffs. Students will have a harder time taking "unnecessary" subjects like history, art, theatre, music, etc. This will have a long-term effect of dumbing down America and making it more difficult for us to compete in the global economy.

Second, it will cause private schools to raise their tuition rates. There will be more money in the hands of people who can already afford to send their kids to school, so the schools will have no qualm, and no reason not to raise the cost of attendance. (This is why a need-based "grant" system might work better, though even that could cause the price of private school to go up. Just look at college tuition. Direct funding of colleges rather than easy-loans and easy-grants would keep tuition and debt lower).

Third, it might lead to the opening of new private schools. Town A might have a second private school open and another 100 students admitted (draining another $300,000 from the public schools). This still leaves the other 800 students without choice, however, and with less funding. Class disparity widens, especially if the private schools admit based on merit (the point) vs. lottery. Ideally, conservatives believe that somehow all 1000 kids will eventually be able to go to private schools paid for with government vouchers. This may be. But if everyone is going to private school, then I imagine we'll see a very similar decline in quality that we've seen in public schools. The low end of the scale will be the least funded--perhaps solely paid for by vouchers, and populated largely by the lowest achievers. The high end will also be paid for by vouchers, but its tuition will be higher, so more private money will inundate these schools. The gap will be similar to what it is today, only now people will not have the safety net of the public school system, and that will be a great loss.

The alternative is to nationalize all schools. Then you'd really have school choice. But that would have a leveling effect, a dumbing down effect, that people with money certainly don't want to see.

So school choice seems fine to me if its the charter school/lottery system that adds public competition to the public school system. But privatization at the cost of the public good does not seem to be the answer to our education problem.

I'm not saying there isn't a huge problem to address with our public schools. I think there are problems with how they're funded in the first place (largely property tax); some serious issues with teachers unions and the lack of merit incentives; huge amounts of waste and a stifling bureaucracy; among many others. But crippling funding of our educational system is so counter-intuitive, so un-American, that I can never get behind the school voucher program.

I will, however, support a system of need-based grants for students too poor to attend private school, that would not pilfer fromt he public coffers. I know many of these schools, however, already have foundations and scholarships set up to deal with this, so I'm not sure it's really an issue.

I also support paying teachers more, just on a base level. Pay them more and demand more of them. If teachers made a starting salary in most locations of closer to $50,000 than $20,000 you'd start seeing many, many higher quality teachers enter the system. That's just a fact.

More on limited government vs. privatization of the public sphere later.


Jannie said...

Wow, look at that structure right out there in the middle of that grassy field. No peeping tom's could peek in those window without getting seen, that's for sure.

I used to discuss politics a lot but gave it up after my knitting accident. Life's too short.

Poems however, I'll discuss til the candidates come home.