Guest Editorial


menckens ghostConservatives and liberals in bed with public ed

Public education makes strange bedfellows.

It also makes strange intellectual inconsistencies.

These two realizations came to mind while listening recently to the big conservative radio station in Phoenix, KFYI. A host and co-host were saying that no one could disagree that public education needed more funding.

To make their case, they repeated every cliché, platitude, nostrum, and canard that their ideological enemies on the left make to support increased spending on education. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

At the same time, the same radio station, reflecting the majority view of conservatives locally and nationally, constantly rails against socialized medical care.

It is indeed a strange intellectual inconsistency to be against socialized medical care but to be for socialized education. Is medical care less important than education? It certainly isn’t less important to a parent whose child is deathly ill.

What accounts for this intellectual inconsistency?

One possible answer is insulting to conservatives, because it suggests that they cannot think past today. It’s not an answer I embrace, because most conservatives I know are deeper thinkers than that. Anyway, the answer is that they haven’t given much thought to the coercive, socialistic nature of public education because it has existed since the late 19th century. Socialized medicine, on the other hand, is something new, or least Obama Care is something new.

(Actually, socialized medicine has been around since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid nearly a half-century ago. How’s that working out?)

Another possible answer is a cynical one. It is that conservatives embrace socialized education because of self-interest. Not only are their suburban school districts above average compared to inner-city schools, but conservatives don’t have to pay the full cost of their children’s education because they are subsidized by people and businesses that pay education taxes but don’t use the schools. In economics lingo, that makes them price-insensitive.

Self-interest might be at work, but a better explanation for the intellectual inconsistency of conservatives about public education is that 90 percent of them attended public schools. Public schools are not the place to learn all of the facts and history about public education. They are a place, however, to learn the following myths about public education.

The Universal Education Myth: This is the myth that parents would let their children remain ignorant and illiterate if it were not for the government achieving universal education through compulsory taxes and compulsory school attendance. How ridiculous! First, this premise is insulting to parents. Second, with 30 percent of students dropping out nationally and 48 percent dropping out in inner cities, universal education is not being achieved through socialized education. Third, the myth assumes that non-governmental solutions to 19th century ignorance and illiteracy wouldn’t have developed as Americans left farms for cities and as the nation became more prosperous. Fourth, it ignores the fact that the public education movement was largely a progressive Protestant movement with a goal of putting successful and inexpensive Catholic schools out of business and teaching “Papists” the King James Bible in public schools.

The Poverty Myth: This myth is actually a non sequitur. It goes like this: Because the poor don’t have the means to educate their children, the education of the non-poor also should be subsidized and socialized. Using this illogic, the non-poor should be forced to participate in the food stamp program, to live in government housing, and to get their medical care through Medicaid or Obama Care. A better solution to the poverty problem is for the non-poor to pay the full cost of their children’s education through tuition fees and for school taxes to only go to the poor. Be careful when suggesting this, though, as it produces angry reactions in conservatives who love their public education subsidies.

The American Values Myth: This is a hilarious myth. It says that public schools are places where children learn American values and history. Ha-ha-ha! Too funny. Perhaps they were such places when decisions were local, but, today, schools are places where people fight over values imposed from on-high – over such issues as prayer in school, dress codes, speech codes, political correctness, school lunch menus, and what version of history should be taught. They also are places that use textbooks based on what passes muster in California and Texas, the two major markets that publishers use as a guide for the rest of the nation. And they are places dominated by a union mentality, a mentality that is at odds with free-market capitalism.

The Under-funded Myth: This myth of schools being under-funded is a whopper fueled by self-interest; that is, by parents and school staff who benefit directly from socialized education. Here are some dynamite facts that blow up the myth:

Total expenditures per student in public elementary and secondary schools, measured in constant dollars, rose from $8,832 in the school year 1989–90 to $12,236 in the school year 2007–08. That’s a 39 percent increase over eight years, over and above inflation.

Most of this new money did not go to the classroom. Most went to pay interest on debt. In fact, debt interest increased by 105 percent over the aforementioned eight years. By contrast, spending on employee salaries and benefits increased “only” 30 percent, with most of the increase going to benefits. The lion’s share of the increase in salaries and benefits went to employees in staff (administrative) positions and not to teachers.

Per-pupil spending in the USA is about 45 percent higher than the average for the countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
What has all this spending accomplished? The average reading and mathematics scores for 17-year-olds on the long-term trend National Assessment of Educational Progress are not measurably different from the early 1970s. Progress has been made with younger students, but it dissipates by graduation.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

The Keep up with the Joneses Myth: The conservative radio hosts mentioned at the beginning of this commentary believe this myth. They believe that if Arizona doesn’t increase per-pupil spending to at least the national average, it will not attract industry and its education will be sub-par. There is no evidence to support this. In fact, states that rank near the top in education spending are losing population and industry to states like Arizona, primarily due to the high taxes in the losing states. Also, when test results are adjusted for race, income and immigrant status, Arizona ranks equal to, or better than, higher-spending states.

In summary, don’t expect conservatives to admit their intellectual inconsistency. When it comes to public ed, they like being in the warm and cozy liberal bed.

Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at