David Rodeback's Blog

Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

Previous Post          Printer-Friendly Version          Next Post


Wednesday, March 14, 2007
The Arrogance of Dominance, and Vice Versa

In this lengthy post, I rip on Capitol Hill Republicans briefly, then Republicans in the Utah Legislature very slightly and ever so briefly, then Capitol Hill Democrats a little less briefly. Then I unload on the public education lobby at length, on the subject of vouchers and institutional arrogance. Finally, after you have paid the price in cognitive dissonance for a moment, I give you permission to call me names and think me evil if you really want to, because of my politics . . . but I still end up claiming a small victory. (This is truth-in-advertising: a long teaser for a long post.)

The question of the week seems to be, How stupid, inattentive, gullible, and/or ignorant do they think we are?

Who are "they" this week? Before I offer two examples from left of center, I freely acknowledge the abundant evidence that most Republicans on Capitol Hill also think we're very . . . something. (Pick your adjective from my list above.) If they felt otherwise, they wouldn't have elected the same old leadership. They'd be doing something real, effective, and contrite about their pork addiction. And they'd be showing some evidence of being vertebrates. (In order to be charitable, I have suggested that the problem is what they think of us. The alternative is that they are stupid, gullible, inattentive, and/or ignorant, but let's not call names when we don't have to.)

I'm not exactly doing cartwheels over the Utah Legislature, either. I think some in the Republican majority have a generous measure more ideology than sense. (I'm not going to bother with the minority just now.) But, as you will see below, I think as a group they got some important things right in their recent session.

Exhibit A

. . . Is from our national capitol.

The Bush administration recently fired eight US Attorneys after a two-year review of their performance. Now the Democrats and the BMA (an almost wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democrats, or is that the other way around?) are trying to make a mighty scandal out of it. They must think -- maybe they are right -- that we don't know a couple of things, and won't figure them out soon enough to prevent some political damage to the President. To wit:

  • US Attorneys are political appointees who serve "at the pleasure of the President," which means that they can be dismissed by him for any reason or no reason at all at any time -- including political differences, the President's wish to put someone else in the position, his horoscope, the phases of the moon, the face he thinks he sees in the mold in the First Refrigerator, etc. Democrats seem well enough aware of this reality when a Democrat is in the White House.
  • Speaking of which . . . About two weeks after taking office in 1993, President Clinton dismissed all 93 of the current US Attorneys and replaced them with his own favorites (or Hillary's or Janet Reno's, who can tell?). The only thing seriously wrong with that was that some of them were investigating him, which is a grievous conflict of interest on his part. (He probably should have left those few in office for a while.) So far, I haven't heard that any of the eight President Bush fired were investigating him.

There's no real scandal here, just propaganda, but either US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or his boss seems to be out to lunch on this point. What is Gonzales doing apologizing? For that matter, what business do Senate Democrats have demanding Gonzales' resignation over this? If he really did something wrong, surely they could impeach him. That would be less slimy than their latest make-as-much-political-hay-as-possible-before-the-public-figures-out-what's-really-going-on-so-that-we-can-win-the-White-House-in-2008 smear campaign.

Exhibit B

. . . Is right here in Utah. (I fear I'm about to anger some of my favorite people.)

In its session this year, the Utah Legislature created a voucher program to assist parents with private school tuition. You already know this is highly controversial. Actually doing it is also somewhat revolutionary. (Note that the same Legislature also gave the public schools an extra half-billion dollars, a large piece of the state budget surplus. The Utah Education Association, or UEA, complained bitterly that the schools deserved the entire surplus.) Governor Huntsman signed the voucher legislation, as expected, since he had spoken favorably of vouchers during his campaign. I figured the next battle over vouchers would be in the courts, but I was wrong.

Now the public school lobby is circulating a petition to put the repeal of vouchers to a statewide public referendum. They want the voters to decide, not the voters' elected representatives. That the public school lobby is in some cases illegally using school facilities to promote this petition is beside the point; they do this routinely with political issues. It's wrong, but it's part of the landscape. My point is, they assume that their vast machine, which includes the wonderful but sometimes politically gullible PTA, can sway enough voters to override the Legislature. They may be right.

Would you agree that the most critical mission of public schools in a (relatively) free society is to provide students with sufficient education in government, economics, critical thinking, math, reading, writing, etc., that they can function as wise citizens and perpetuate freedom, generation after generation? Suppose I'm right about this. If I am, then this campaign by the public school lobby relies for its success on the public schools' ineffectiveness in pursuing their most critical mission.

I've heard them on the radio, suggesting that the people really don't want vouchers, that legislators should slavishly follow the lobby's version of public opinion in this matter, and that, of course, vouchers would be very bad for the public schools. In each of these three points, they assume that we do not know -- perhaps because they have not taught adequately, because they either do not acknowledge or do not understand -- that:

  • This is not a democracy. It is a democratic republic, in which the voters elect (as in authorize) their representatives to make these decisions. The hope in such a system, and often the effect, is that the collective wisdom of the elected representatives exceeds that of the public at large. Meanwhile, a democratic majority's tendency toward tyranny is somewhat restrained by this indirection.
  • Even a basic understanding of economics, like some limited experience around the country, strongly suggests that competition would improve the public schools, not destroy them as the lobby claims.
  • Lavish taxpayer funding, firmly-rooted bureaucracy, and unionized near-monopoly routinely lead to decisions aimed at perpetuating the institutional status quo, not advancing the institution's proper mission. (I know the lobby says everything is does is "for the children," but I'm just not that naive.) Real freedom in the educational market would empower parents to look after their children's educational interests, rather than submitting them to a bureaucracy which, institutionally if not in every individual case, is more interested in itself than in any particular student or class.

My state representative and state senator actually have my and other voters' legitimate authority to make these decisions. If they don't make them as we wish, we can vote, or even run, against them in the next election. Practically speaking, in a few cases we might override our own representatives by referendum; whether vouchers should be such a case depends on your view. But don't get the idea that the public education lobby actually has a deep and abiding respect for democracy (as opposed to representative government). On other issues, when it serves their ends, the public education lobby eagerly accepts the Legislature's authority -- the half-billion dollar bonus comes to mind -- and a referendum is the last thing the lobby wants. Suppose vouchers had been imposed by referendum, over the Legislature's opposition. Does anyone seriously believe the public school lobby would hesitate for one minute to try to reverse the results of that referendum?

In fact, suppose that the proposed initiative gets on the ballot, but is defeated at the polls. Does anyone seriously believe that the public education lobby will hesitate for half a heartbeat to file suit in state and federal courts to reverse the will of the people and their elected representatives?

A referendum is not in itself an evil thing. In this case, it would certainly be interesting. But don't get the idea that the public education lobby wants a fair fight. To make it a fair fight, the forces of freedom would have to fight more tirelessly, cleverly, patiently, and intelligently than usual against the public education lobby's home court advantage. And that lobby would have to exercise -- or have imposed on it -- some reasonable restraint in its tendency to use public funds, public employees, and public property to sway the voters.

So how will it go? As flagrant as the public education lobby's arrogance seems to have become, I think they will succeed in getting the referendum on the ballot, and they will probably win at the polls. But I wonder, Where is the limit of Utah voters' patience with condescension, arrogance, inefficiency, and intermittent lawlessness? If it happens, the referendum will be an interesting test. So will its aftermath, if it passes, because the public school lobby will then be even more arrogant, demanding, and insufferable, and their death grip on their own power will tighten. They'll claim all of this is "good for the children," of course, but it's really good for the lobby -- right up to the point where they exceed the public's patience, whenever that is.

If One Is Good, Wouldn't Two or Three or Four Be Better?

For a moment, let's take the lobby at their word, as to their respect for the voter's wisdom.

What was that you said? No, please try to keep up. I mean the voters' wisdom in opposing vouchers, if they really do, not the voters' wisdom in electing their representatives, who favor vouchers.

If the voters are so wise, and if one referendum is good, wouldn't two referenda be better? (I could have written that sentence perfectly well without the word referenda, but I wanted to show off the fact that I know the correct plural of referendum. Forgive me. I had a fantastic English teacher in a little public high school in Idaho, back in a previous century.)

The second initiative could be, Shall the Utah Legislature's appropriation of half a billion extra dollars to the public schools from the state budget surplus be revoked, and the funds returned to the individual taxpayers? Or more legalistic words to that effect.

How about a third? Shall teacher organizations other than the NEA, UEA, and their affiliates be permitted to recruit members on the premises of Utah public schools and to negotiate contracts with schools and districts on their members' behalf; and shall efforts on the part of any organization, institution, or individual to impede this be unlawful and punishable under civil and/or criminal law? (Don't think this one isn't on the legislators' minds.)

How about a fourth? Shall the principals of public schools in Utah be granted full authority to hire and fire teachers? (This, combined with open enrollment in a large district, would do almost as much good in the long run as vouchers.)

I'll bet the UEA and its minions wouldn't want to risk any of these reasonable propositions' passage by the same voters to whom they appeal in the voucher matter. Their trust in the voters' judgment, like their derision for the duly constituted, properly elected representatives of the people, varies with the issue.

I Ask a Boon of the Open-Minded Reader

I know I've pushed some buttons pretty hard in this post. If you think that anything I have written here indicates that I am hostile to children, to education, to hardworking school teachers and administrators, or to PTA members or other volunteers, or that I deny all the good that these individuals and their institutions do, or that I am (or am under the direct influence of) Satan himself, I have a challenge for you. Because you take pride in being open-minded, you will want to accept my challenge before rushing to judgment. It has two steps.

Step One: Read the following expressions of my views on education and at least give me the benefit of the doubt for a minute or two, while you do Step Two.

  • As a student, I had many good teachers, a handful of great ones, and some who should have been encouraged to find less critical professions. For (and to) the first group I was grateful. For (and to) the second group I was very grateful. I thought both those groups were underpaid, though my thinking didn't help them with their mortgage payments. At the time, I wasn't grateful to (or for) the third group at all; I disliked and resented them.
  • My children attend the public schools, where they have had a handful of great teachers, a larger number of good ones, and some who should be encouraged to find less critical professions. Maybe I'm just older and wiser now, or maybe it's because I've since taught for a few years myself, but I'm actually grateful to all of these -- to the third group at least for trying their best to do a difficult job. None of this helps with mortgage payments, either, but maybe gratitude, if teachers happen to hear of it, helps them get up and go to work in the morning. That's something.
  • Few if any things in the world are more important than the thorough and proper education of children. I myself would rather teach than do any of the other things I have done to earn a (better) living. Frustrated as I am at the need to do so, I actually enjoy teaching my children mathematics when the inadequate curriculum of the Alpine School District falls short. I myself was a teacher for some years -- not a bad one, either -- and someday I may figure out how to afford teaching again. I frankly envy the men and women who get to do it for a (meager) living.
  • I don't blame specific teachers or administrators at my children's schools for the glaring flaws and gross inefficiencies in public education. If you must know, I blame the system, which to some extent (not completely) attracts, encourages, enforces, and celebrates mediocrity; which is to a large extent (not completely) hostile to excellence; and which vigorously (but not completely) resists real accountability. Small wonder, then, that I advocate reforming the system. Meanwhile, if these institutional attributes sound familiar, they should. These are the (almost?) inevitable characteristics of large, well-funded, monopolistic bureaucracies.
  • I would not want to put my children in a private elementary or secondary school which placed religious instruction and orthodoxy above academic excellence in its list of priorities -- even when the religion in question more or less resembles my own. But I don't fear others' children being in such schools, and I don't accept the argument that a taxpayer's choice to use taxpayer funds (i.e. vouchers) to put that taxpayer's children in private religious schools is an unconstitutional mixing of church and state. My own children can get their religion at home and at church, and in a single period of release-time religious instruction if it's available. If that's not enough for other people's children, fine, whatever.
  • Because I'm pushing buttons already, I'll add that I have very limited patience for prayer in public schools. I don't think creationism or intelligent design should be taught in science classes -- though perhaps they might be acknowledged in passing. (It's nice when science occasionally admits that there is more to some people's lives than science.) A good science curriculum should include evolution -- but as a useful scientific theory, not as the one immutable and comprehensive explanation of how humans came to be, or as the complete refutation of all religious faith. And I think any legislative effort to impose unscientific absolutes in a science curriculum -- whether Darwinism, creationism, human-caused global warming, overpopulationism, flat-earthism, or earth-as-the-center-of-the-universe-ism (it's a big day for hyphens here at the blog) -- is destructive of legitimate scientific inquiry and dangerously misguided.

Step Two requires fewer words. Consider: How can the writer of these statements also be the writer of the rest of this blog post (especially "Exhibit B" above), assuming that the statements and the rest of the post are quite sincere? (My apologies for any cognitive dissonance you may encounter in the process.)

When you have done justice to Steps One and Two, then, if you must, you may call me names and say that I hate children -- parents, teachers, cafeteria workers, bunny rabbits, little birdies, whatever. I don't, and I'd love it if you didn't think I do. But if you really did Step Two, you considered for a moment the possibility that my politics' divergence from the public education lobby's orthodoxy doesn't necessarily make me evil. That's a little win for me. That's all I ask.

David Rodeback comments (3/17/07):

I re-read this post this morning and decided that it was insufficiently clear, particularly in some of its transitions from one thought to another. I have polished it a little, corrected a couple of typos, and knit it together a little more tightly in a few places. I don't think I've altered its substantive description of my thoughts at all, but I hope I've made it a little easier to understand this particular product of my slightly addled brain.

Previous Post          Printer-Friendly Version          Next Post


Bookmark and Share