Government Itself Needs an Education

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Anyone who sees health policy as a trackless jungle for policymakers should take a gander at education policy as mediated by the federal government.

Anyone who thinks U.S. public schools are better overall than when the federal government muscled its way into a policy jurisdiction reserved generally to the states—careful about jostling sleepwalkers.

Oh, well, here we go again. The new Obama budget provisionally awards public education $6.2 billion more than the last time, for a total of $49.7 billion. The budget contemplates overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law, that artifact of the early Bush years.

President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, who is portrayed as one of the cabinet’s wiser figures, hopes to promote increased competition for federal funds. He hopes Congress will scrap the “utopian goal,” as he calls it, of having every child read and do math at grade level by 2014. The objective henceforth would be to make sure students graduate “college- and career-ready”—CCR in Washington-speak.

Education reform’s congruence with health care reform stems from the same peppy expectation that the central government is both well-placed and well-qualified to direct the remedial process. The central government is huge and hyper with lots of taxpayer money. The government thinks that means it can tell ordinary people what they need, when in fact the realities of health and education are larger than any government could ever master. These realities rest in human abilities, human talents, human cussedness. No government has ever succeeded in lining these factors up together and making them march.

Though we’re certainly trying these days, aren’t we?

Leave aside health care, a subject scrubbed almost to death these past eight or 10 awful months. What about schools? Can’t government—given that the great majority of American kids are in government schools of one kind or another—make an impact on education? Certainly, but the matter is complex, hence hard for government authority figures to address.

A basic problem with education, one is sorry to say, is basic disparity in the talents and intellectual wattage that people bring with them to school. We all understand the problem, from intuition and experience. Admitting that understanding to the policy arena is the hard part. Democratic government—the instrument of all the people—can’t easily acknowledge quality differences among clients. It can say all must be brought to the same level, but it can’t suggest some may never get there. The protection of these from reality has become in our time the highest end of government education policy. One way is in the emphasis on college for everybody—the university degree as the new high-school diploma. In fact, young people have different aspirations as well as abilities. The government simply can’t acknowledge it.

Embedded in the CCR goal—college- and career-ready—is the useful suggestion that some in government understand a deep truth: That a good electrician or plumber is at least as great a blessing to society as a cellist or a specialist in asbestos law. We will have to see how much influence this appreciation gains when the budget comes together. Here, someone is on the right track.

We forget the role of homes and families in setting educational expectations. A society nation where half of children will live at some point in a single-parent family will have fewer, scanter blessings than one with an authority structure founded on the permanent presence of two parents. Yet in the very democratic interest of not disparaging people’s lifestyle choices (divorce, cohabitation, etc.), the government can’t consciously promote one lifestyle over the rest.

In other words, too much mealy-mouthed, pseudo-democracy is the biggest barrier to educational attainment: though, shhhhhh, we can’t say it. We can rejigger spending formulas and incentive programs. We can’t convincingly argue for the reconstruction of older forms of life, where society flourished because people were left generally to make their own choices. The kind of choices they made, come to think of it, concerning health care. Shhhhh—can’t talk about that either. Big Brother might be listening.


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