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NY Taxpayer’s Letter Illustrates Effectiveness of GOP Message

February 18, 2017

My daily Google Alert provides me with a wide array of writings on public education, which include letters to the editor.  Thursday’s feed included a letter sent to the Albany Times Union by Kingston NY resident Ronald Dietl, which is printed influx below with my italics added:

The opposition by the United Federation of Teachers union to the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education caused me to write this letter. From what I read, the union is concerned about her support of school vouchers and charter schools. Most recently, the concern is that she was never a teacher and didn’t send her children to public schools.

Let’s consider not being a teacher and no personal interaction with public schools: I’m positive the chairman of Ford Motor Co. couldn’t assemble an automobile to save his life. He has staff reporting to him to deal with the everyday realities of that. His responsibility is to set goals and expectations, monitor end results and take corrective actions.

The real union concern is competition for money going into public education. At the moment, public education in New York state and elsewhere operates as an unregulated monopoly, protected by law and compliant taxpayers. Vouchers, money given directly to parents to allow them to choose the school they want to educate their children, and charter schools, one of the options to existing private schools, means competition for taxpayer money to educate children.

What our public school system and the unions should be focusing on is what makes parents choose to opt out of public education and choose an alternative. They need to do some serious introspection and determine what changes public education must make to remain competitive. And, then, they need to present a new face and enter the world of competition.

As the heading on this post indicates, this letter indicates the effectiveness of the GOP’s messaging, which is rooted in the politics of Ronald Reagan and the economics of Milton Friedman. One of President Reagan’s first actions was to break the air traffic controller’s union by firing every one of them who was on strike and replacing them with new hires who were at will employees. When he did that with impunity, it sent a message to every GOP politician who followed him that public unions could be broken and sent a message to every public union that if they went on strike they could conceivably lose their job and would most certainly NOT have public sentiment on their side. Thus, the bogeyman in Mr. Dietl’s view (and the view of many taxpayers like him) is the public union… in this case the United Federation of Teachers.

And if the union is the bogeyman, who is the hero— or in this case heroine? The “outsider” who brings managerial expertise and a fresh perspective to an intransigent bureaucracy. Despite the absence of any supporting evidence, Mr. Dietl is convinced that Betsy DeVos has the same level of managerial expertise as the CEO of a major automobile manufacturer and will hire or inherit a staff prepared to deal with the “everyday realities” of the Department of Education. As noted in earlier posts, it appears that the Trump administration views the Education Department as superfluous and an ideal place to reward evangelically minded donors with government jobs. While I hope that Ms. DeVos will retain key administrators who can eat with the “everyday realities” of the Department of Education, I have the unsettling sense that she is intent on undercutting the efforts to provide equity and fairness in public education and promoting the competition so beloved of the Friedman-ites.

And it is evident from Mr. Dietl’s letter that the Friedman school of economics has gripped not only the GOP but the voters at large. Mr. Friedman and his acolytes believe that unregulated markets are fair, just, and efficient and that any government interference in the form of regulations interferes with this inherently “good” balance. To those who believe in the magic of the marketplace, competition among vendors will always result in the best products emerging. With that mindset, vouchers are the best way to deliver the “product” of public education for they enable the “consumer”— intros case parents— to purchase the product from an array of choices in the same way they purchase, say, breakfast cereal. So when Mr. Dietl and those who share his perspective suggest that those who work in public education need to present a new face and enter the world of competition, he is endorsing the ideas of Mr. Friedman and placing his faith the in magic of the marketplace. No matter that “the marketplace” for rural education is as limited as it is for groceries and gasoline: if people choose to live in the boondocks they are accepting a world with limited choices. No matter that “the marketplace” for parents living in poverty stricken urban neighborhoods is as limited as it is for groceries and gasoline: those in poverty are undeserving of public support.

Unfortunately, those who want to undercut a public good like education create myths that the public embraces in the face of facts that contradict those myths… and the biggest myth about public education is that it is an unregulated monopolyprotected by law and compliant taxpayers. Anyone who has worked in public education can tell you that it is heavily regulated, is subject to countless lawsuits and subject to endless changes in the law, and has few “compliant taxpayers”. I would guess that Mr. Dietl has seldom voted in favor of a school budget and views those who do vote for the passage of budgets as “compliant”… but I am confident that the school board and administration in his community worked diligently to prepare a budget that was full of compromises in order to secure passage. And education is a “monopoly” for the same reason roads, water, and police and fire protection are a monopoly. Schools provide a public good and as such they need to be uniformly available to all citizens.

The demise of the equal opportunity for learning may be the result of the demise of the so called American Dream whereby each successive generation does better than the previous one. But if we want to restore that dream, we need to do whatever it takes to restore our public schools.

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