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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Imagine the early days of the railroad, where regional railroads were springing up according to reasonably high-traffic intercity routes. There was little ability to regulate the railroads, because so many of them were interstate — it was a real test for the federal government. Eventually, the government was able to prevail on the railroad industry to consent to interstate standardizations and regulations that allowed the creation of a nearly unified, national system which vastly increased efficiency. The most important of these regulations was the standardization of the gauge of the rail line — the distance between the two tracks. For a while, different companies, states, even counties would have different rules, and so tracks were all sorts of messed up. Trains couldn't easily go between certain states or regions, and only certain engines could be used on certain trains, thus limiting competition among the engine-producing companies. Vertical monopolies were begging to be created. Those railroad gauges — they were a big pain in the ass.

I won't bother pointing out how government regulation in this instance actually protected an industry from inefficient regional monopolies that would have slowed infrastructure growth, as well as natural property rights that would have made it impossible. You could argue that the industry could have come together and agreed to standardizations collusively — as the medical profession more or less does with the American Medical Association, for example. You'd be right to argue that; much of the standardization was initiated by the railroad bosses themselves. Nevertheless, the national railroad system was created by regulation, though it was heavily financed by private industry.

Not the point. On with the thought experiment: Imagine if no such regulation, whether self-imposed or nationally imposed (in any case they were publicly and nationally financed through land grants and other measures) had taken place, and instead competing lines maintained different standards. People in certain parts of the country would end up practically locked out of other parts; if there were too many gauge changes, too many engine changes and lines routing redundantly as separate railroad lines competed for lucrative commuter areas, we'd end up with de facto segregation not only of people but resources. It would not be a worthwhile proposition to ship from one region to another.

This constraint of opportunity not only hurts the individuals affected, it has an overall detrimental effect on the republic. Fluid movement of individuals and ideas — and capital and labor — across the country with minimal complication (or danger) was a necessary factor in creating a two-ocean empire within 40 years of a civil war that almost obliterated a fragile republic.

A child's mind is no commodity, but it does take "equipping" if you will. Frameworks can be built up. The child's mind can be patterned, molded and given cognitive tools. For all its failures as a science, psychology has done wonders in identifying the best ways to teach children to think.

There are basic cognitive abilities children need; given these abilities, we can then subsequently let young adults sink or swim according to their social skills and work ethic — things they can only learn from parents and siblings. Knowledge is out there for the taking; you can take it or leave it. But you have to know where it is, and how to get there. That is the value of early education, by which I mean education through the second cognitive developmental phase, through the age of 7 or 8.

Notice, too, that this is an explicitly qualitative thing, not a quantitative one. Counting how much knowledge a kid has is not necessarily linked to how much he could have, and is less important than whether he has the ability to get there. You can correct habits and exploit passions; but if a kid doesn't know how to learn and reason, you'll only get so far.

We have a responsibility, as a group of human beings choosing to govern ourselves, to the next generation, who must by dint of our choices govern themselves. That responsibility would be well served by equal early education. We humans, as stupid as we are, will always mess things up. Usually pretty bad. The Greatest Generation inherited the Roaring Twenties, got the Great Depression, won the Second World War, and then handed the Baby Boomers the Cold War. The Baby Boomers got the Cold War, ended that, built up the Internet, handed us (Gen X-Y-Z or whatever) unconfronted climate change and a "global war on terror." That'll always happen, in perpetuity forever. Get used to it.

What we can give our kids, though, are the tools of a citizen of a republic. We can teach them how to reason — to understand the difference between evidence and superstition, and how the former is superior to the latter. We can teach them that laws have real power because they come from the people — not because "the government says so." We can teach them to value science and art for their constructive and critical capabilities, as well as their profitable ones. We can teach them, in other words, to be skeptical, reasonable, curious citizens. We can do this; it's perfectly imaginable. Getting to kids and creatively equipping them to question everything based on reason, to demand evidence and to be intellectually honest will do more than infinite Pell Grants and subsidized loans. A kid can be given these kinds of tools by their seventh birthday, into what child education specialists call the "Concrete Operations" phase.

The teachers who teach kids at those ages need to be forced to go through more rigorous education, and their salaries raised accordingly; those first five or six years of education, from 3 to 7 or 8, are arguably more important than the years spent in college.

Early and elementary education is the tracks; college is the dining car. Without those tracks, nothing runs, and if they're not all the standard gauge, we are how far people can go. But in a society with enormous and largely ignored class segregation, we're very willing to let different areas — or classes — have different grades, meaning the little engines that could will never really be able to go anywhere outside of their class, at least in a meaningful way.

Social mobility in the US is much better than in most of the developing world, but has already slipped behind much of the European Union and Canada, and is actually declining as educational quality and family income become more and more correlated. Capitalism without social mobility is an illusion masking aristocracy. As free market schemes like vouchers invade the public education system, de-funding a standardized public education, the correlation between affluence and education will only intensify. People have been increasingly trained to see education as a marketplace, where parents and eventually students themselves can just pick and choose what "works best for them" — meaning, of course, what they can afford, because who would ever choose a slightly worse option of education if they could afford a better one? — instead of a part of our republican experiment, as important an element of a working republic as a reliable, equally accessible transportation system. A prohibition of movement cannot exist in a republic — because then we'd be prisoners to the state — but we allow a prohibition of enlightenment, as we gleefully link up the tracks of the well-heeled and leave the rest to shuttle back and forth in maddening frustration.

Allowing for any variety of "market fluctuation" in the quality of early education in particular is a strike directly at the republican form of government. This may not have been true of the agrarian and trading society we started as, but in an industrial and tertiary economy like we have now, to distribute cognitive tools to children according to their affluence is a form of economic violence. It is empowering some to rule, and others only to be ruled.

This is a national issue that has a direct impact on the quality and strength of our republic. But the national mood is not one likely to support fundamental structural change — god knows it's not a concern of our national "leaders" — so we should turn our attention to the states.

Illinois is currently in the top 50 percent when it comes to quality of early education (defined as 3- and 4-year-olds) according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). This is based on the resources allocated to such programs, which are funded by the state government. How nice — an easy standard measured across the state because of a common funding source. Of course, this is exactly what non-early education (timely education?) lacks. According to A+ Illinois, a funding-reform coalition, our state ranks 47th (that's out of 50) in the level of state support for education generally — meaning that the school you go to has more to do with the house you live in than the results we as adults want to see from our children.

The fight over fair funding in Illinois led to the (semi-) dramatic "showdown" between Governor Blagojevich and state Senator Reverend James Meeks, an Independent-cum-Democrat who threatened to run in the gubernatorial election (thus likely splitting the Governor's base) if no real school-funding solution was forthcoming. The face-saving solution that emerged was something, but only in the literal sense — it was some thing.

To allow for patchwork funding systems and education infrastructures that are inherently separate and unequal is to tacitly admit that some Americans are not whole citizens. It would be to deny access to the railroads or highways; to deny the right to send mail or use a river.

When thinking about these education issues, it's useful not to lazily equate cash with results. Conservatives love to point to liberals' desire to "throw money at a problem" such as education, and they aren't wrong (though they are of course hypocrites, much to the delight of the Pentagon). Increasing the funding at poor schools doesn't change the fact that those schools would exist in poor communities, where families are more likely to be broken, parents less likely to be educated, external opportunities for structure and creative expression extremely limited. The Children's Learning Institute published a report that found that "lack of readiness" is a serious problem for kids embarking on their education, and that that readiness has a correlation to economic, social, and familial "risk factors." We cannot as a society legislate parenting; we can only minimize the potential negative impact. There is no utopia at the end of the railroad, in other words. But that doesn't mean you can't try to get as close as you can.

Let's also not turn this into "punishing" successful communities. This is not a zero-sum proposition; the argument is not that all of our kids need to be brought down to the same level, but rather that all kids must begin their educational experience with the same tools; not only for the economic dividends, but for the health of the republic. So equipped, the "Formal Operations" phase of a kid's development — his pre-teen and early teen years, when educational attainment and cognitive abilities can be sort of "tricked out" with all the bells and whistles — will give him ample opportunities to set himself apart.

Natural talent, strength of parenting, and economic opportunities will all obviously still play a role — our kids would still be able to compete with one another — but the competition would be more pure, because all parties would have the same basic tools. It makes the entire pool better because the competition is sharper. You don't pat someone on the back for beating a one-legged man in a race.

Creating a standardized, highly specialized early education-through-early elementary school program, uniformly funded and tracked quantifiably as well as qualitatively (through peer review processes, preferably), seems as critical to strengthening our national infrastructure and strengthening the republic in the modern service economy as building the railroads did on the precipice of the Industrial Revolution. The first step is recognizing the profound importance of that education, and understanding it as a right of citizenship, no different than equality before the law or equality in the voting booth. Call it equality of enlightenment. The second step is to pull together all the leading minds on childhood cognitive development and design a national program. The last part — where it gets fun — is picking a fight with the economic snake-handlers and free market fundamentalists who loathe public education and get a reasonable funding system.

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C-Note / February 27, 2008 7:09 PM

Well, I can't make an argument against your proposal without sounding cynical, but I will say this: if I ever have children, I will NEVER leave their education up to the government, no matter how successful your proposal proves to be.

I guess my position, not being a statist like yourself, is that some things are too important to be left entirely in the hands of the government. Which is not to say that I'd be categorically against sending my kids to government schools, but I wouldn't let the government school be the sole source of their education.

I would, however, be in favor of a state tax increase on the condition that the revenues go solely to support a proposal such as yours.

mike / February 27, 2008 11:25 PM

While I don't agree with a standardized HS or elementary school program, which can often
1) lead to further funding-based testing,
2) limit educators in the 'art of education'
3) limit advancing/testing emerging teching methods,
4) lead to stunted growth for individual schools (that may need to make critical and creative decisions based on a local student population needs),
I do substantially believe that:

"Those first five or six years of education, from 3 to 7 or 8, are arguably more important than the years spent in college."

and that higher levels of assessment, funding, and commitment for elementary schools will be necessary if we are to have any decent civilized level of equality in public education.

In addition, three very critical things need to happen,
1) A national re-evaluation of the teaching profession, which considers the following: salary and global competitiveness, accountability, and further assistance to working- professionals wishing to become teachers.
2) A national re-evaluation of the public school system, with less superficial media coverage of education, and more coverage on how better schools re-affirm social mobility and enlightenment
3) (the 3rd rail) WE HAVE TO CHANGE THE WAY SCHOOLS ARE FUNDED -IE - as long as property taxes make up the majority of school funding, inequality and stunted social mobility are directly the consequence.

James Beal, Ed.D. / February 28, 2008 9:18 AM

A few mistakes, but overall we stated.

First "knowledge" is constructed from information. It is just not simply acquired. Schools and teacher need to faciliate knowledge construction not just convey information that will be regurgitated on a standardized test.

Second, you fail to see the real reason behind the NCLB which was to see that public schools fail. This, of course would lead to a voucher system.

Third, there is an apparent assumption that everyone wants a truly ubiquitous and fair educational system. Some do, but many people may believe that public education needs improvement, but their schools are OK (or better than that). How many is debatable. However, I do not see a lot of lawsuits brought by parents for schools that fail to provide a good education.

Last, there is the assumption that a voucher system is bad. I see this because all of the proposed voucher plans are bad. However, a properly funded and excuted voucher program, aimed at providing qulaity education for everyone could be a good thing. It would take more than vouchers. Tax breaks, credits and incentives would also play a key role.

Kenzo / February 28, 2008 9:55 AM

re: Doc Beal
"However, a properly funded and excuted [sic]voucher program, aimed at providing qulaity[sic] education for everyone could be a good thing. It would take more than vouchers. Tax breaks, credits and incentives would also play a key role"

1. Where exactly have we seen vouchers working?
2. What do you feel are the net benefits of moving to a voucher system in lieu of working to make all neighborhood public schools excellent and equitable in terms of catering to the needs of communities?

A voucher system will do little more than turbocharge our journey to complete plutocracy. The math is pretty simple.

A voucher will be issued to all families with children. Each child will receive a credit of X dollars.

Here is how it will play out:
Awesome College Prep costs X+$20,000 a year. It has a high number of alumni who matriculate into Ivy League Schools. It's dropout rate is close to 0%.
Old Neighborhood School (ONS), a school that has failed for years is now turned over to a corporation (In a complete voucher system there will be no need for charter schools). They are now known as ONS College Prep (ONSCP). Since there is no government oversight of the school's program, its curricular needs are horribly underfunded. It has a history of social promotion and the average graduate would be lucky making your fries.

The tuition for ONSCP is exactly $X dollars a year.

Parents who would normally put their kids in private schools are now receiving a credit of $X a year. The less-affluent parents (this could even be the middle-class families who typically choose to live in neighborhoods based on quality, free education) either have to take on extra jobs so that their kids can compete with the children of the wealthy or take a risk at the $X a year "private" school.

This is not a problem that can be solved by the free market. Adam Smith, your homeboy, even made the caveat that the schools should be off limits to his system.

The only way we can have a truly competitive market is to allow all members of society an equal shot at getting in the game. When the haves retain total access to high-quality education, the haves retain all of the power and the have-nots remain their employees.

Let's take on another scenario. Let's say that families making wages under the poverty line receive a credit of $X+20,000 (which would be seemingly unconstitutional), allowing equal access to the upper-echelon of schools. There could be a sliding scale where all families receive enough aid to pay for the best schools.

Under this program (which I loosely based on the AMA's proposal for Health Care Reform), all students would have equal access to a high-quality education.

Now I would like for someone to explain to me the benefit of this program over the status quo. True, there would be less government involvement, but this would be de facto "throwing money at the problem."

So that leaves us with the possible dilemma in the proposed world of vouchers:

Do we allow for inequality in education between classes, or do we "throw money at the problem."

Perhaps the solution is to looks for solutions to the root causes of these problems and not apply snake-oil to our nation's failing schools.

Mateus / February 29, 2008 9:20 AM

I usually disagree with these articles, but this one is pretty good. Education is a public good, and all provate actors in the economy beenfit from a well-educated populace. Kevin Smith at the U of C has done great work demonstrating this reality quantitatively.

I am far from an expert on the education system, but having attended public schools as a youth, I have arrived at these tentative conclusions:
1) obviously funding should be at some unifrom level. It is this way in Spain where I live, and everyone here can do algebra and has read Cervantes.
2) Many teachers are fools. I am sorry, I know there are some good ones, but most of them I had were terrible. They have no incentive to perform better or work harder, especially once they get tenure. Also, "loving kids" is not a qualification to teach.
3) Teachers should be better compensated. Related to the above. Let's face it, anyone with a bachelors can be a teacher, and many enter the field because they can't think of anything better to do, and there aren't enough teachers out ther as evidenced by overcorwded schools. Again, there are good teachers, but so many are hacks, and the hacks can cover themselves by claiming a devotion to the children. Pay them better and it will attract a higher grade of candidates and create more competition to get these jobs.
4) Standardized tests are far from perfect but not the bogeyman. If we are incentivize teachers by compensation and fast track promotion for good teaching, we must have a way to measure them. Maybe the tests need to be retooled, but they are not in and of themselves bad.
5) There should be even higher penalties for not completing secondary education. Obviously not having an HS diploma screws you for life these days, but still so many people opt out. So obviously the penalties aren't high enough. If access to public services was dependent on having completed secondary education, this may change things. There may be exceptions for the develomentally challenged, but apart from that it is inexcusable to be uneducated in this country. This is how it is seen in Europe, and I would love to see this steadfastness exported.
6) Consider more vocational training. Not everyone needs or wants to go to college. History and math are important, but can seem boring when you are sixteen. We should consider offering more vocational training, so that people can both apply science and math to something professional, and graduate HS knowing how to do something, like electrical work, computer networking, whatever.

Joe / March 1, 2008 12:15 AM

Re: Kenzo
"Let's say that families making wages under the poverty line receive a credit of $X+20,000 (which would be seemingly unconstitutional), allowing equal access to the upper-echelon of schools."

A long aside on that comment -- just to let you know: proposed legislation that would grant large voucher awards to the poor would probably not be unconstitutional if challenged on the grounds of equal protection. Anytime there is legislative discrimination based on yearly income, there is a very high burden for the challenger of the law to meet, because the poor are not a suspect class.

Since there has not been much legislation in the US outright favoring the poor, this has been tested in the past for legislation that discriminated against the poor. In those cases, the poor person (challenger) had to show that the legislation was not rationally related to a legitimate government interest - because the poor are not a suspect class for the purposes of equal protection. Meeting that burden is about as hard as proving that gas prices are raising because of oil company price gouging - Exxon shows up and says, "hey, supply and demand. A small refinery closed in Midland, Texas this month." Exxon wins, even though they posted the largest corporate profits in human history for like 20 straight quaters.

In this case, the only person that would have standing to challenge the suit is a person who is not eligible for the voucher - and he/she would have to argue that the law discriminates against him/her on the basis of yearly income. The class that is discriminated against in this case is the middle/upper-class, which is not a suspect class. Therefore, he/she would have to prove that the legislation is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest, which would be impossible. Granting unlimited vouchers to the poor for education is certainly rationally related to the legitimate government interest of avoiding a caste society.

The problem is that a voucher system that allows a "free ride" to the poor will never be realized in the US. This is for several reasons - the taxpayer's false and foolhardy notion that tax money is "my" money; lingering notions of social darwinism still prevalent in this country; and racism. Some have been arguing for nearly 20 years that NOT having such legislation actually violates equal protection (see "Poverty as a Suspect Class in Public Education Equal Protection Suits," Julius Menacker, West's Education Law Reporter, v54 n4 p1085-98 Sep. 28, 1989).

However, I believe the biggest reason is the old adage: those with power will do all they can to retain the power. Having a government that wishes to AVOID a caste system is foreign to most US citizens, because those who represent us are the elite - those who a caste system benefit the most. The funny thing is that the american castes are not determined by one's family groups as much as they are determined by the university one attended - which is probably why you thought it is ILLEGAL to grant the poor full vouchers in the first place.

My take on the "throwing money at the problem" argument is that it is a fabrication by the landed elites - playing on the "tax money is MY money" idiocy of the average voter. The whole argument is completely contrived and bootstrapped ... if you have a problem that consists of a moronic population, you pay for them to attend school, and you require that they go (ask China or the USSR). We don't "throw money at the problem" in the US, though ... we just have an open admissions policy at the top US universities for the Chinese, Indian, and Russian students, (under equal protection - affirmative action) who are far superior to domestic students. It's a good thing that SCHOOL = BUSINESS!!!!


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Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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