»  National Review Online

August 27th, 2010

  Race to Nowhere

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In the way these things happen, we had a sudden deluge of education stories this past few days. For this Long Islander the news was both local, state, and national.

Our local news concerned a school district referendum on spending $2m to add buildings to our intermediate school (grades 4-6). The backstory here is that there used to be two intermediate schools in the district, this one and another. The other was a good school, much liked by parents. Unfortunately it was located in the middle of a nasty slum with a full complement of gangs, drugs, crime, and "low-income housing." (That last phrase is Newspeak for "custom-built slums." What, you city types thought such things didn't exist out here in the bosky suburbs? Let me tell you.)

There was a fatal shooting near that other school after a July 4th party. Then in August there was a double shooting, nonfatal but dramatic enough to make the regional TV news. The school board decided the neighborhood was too dangerous for kids, and closed the school. That means more students for the first school. It was scheduled to be expanded anyway via modular classrooms (=trailers), but with this new burden, the district thought a building would be necessary, and put the matter to referendum.

We voted it down, 863 to 624. There were a number of factors in play, but large among them, to judge from conversations with neighbors, was fed-up-ness with the education rackets and their endless and endlessly-increasing demands on our wallets. This is a mainly lower-middle-class town, and a lot of people — people, I mean, who didn't have the foresight to Get a Government Job — are hard up. Two million dollars sounds like a lot of money when you're hard up.

Up to the state level. New York has been declared one of the winners in Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative. This is a scheme in which states can accumulate points for various kinds of federally-approved educational initiatives, and win federal cash grants according to the number of points they get. The initiatives are defined as fuzzily as possible to allow for maximum politicization: "Providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals" will get your state 21 points, for example. Fuzzy as the initiatives are, though, there's enough matter in them to generate resistance from the ed-biz unions, and there have been some ugly battles in the state legislature.

To call us a "winner" is really making too much of New York's achievement. Race to the Top is a caucus race in which wellnigh everybody gets prizes — 10 of the 18 competitors in this latest round. Furthermore, independent education watchers seem unable to find much difference between winner states and loser states. The news has none the less been greeted with wild rejoicing in the local media. Even the normally sensible New York Post, America's Newspaper of Record, ran a triumphal editorial declaring that "the money is great for New York."

No it isn't. Not only is it not great, it's also not money. The federal government hasn't got any money, and its creditors are shutting off the credit spigot. The $700m "won" by New York is pretend money, faery gold that will melt away to nothing when the trumpets sound to herald the great inflation that is coming upon us.

Which is actually the good news. If that $700m were real money, it would be a tad more painful to watch it disappearing into the great drooling maw of the ed-biz leviathan. Here's the proposed allocation:

Talk about fuzzy! You could drive a coach and four through any one of those item descriptions, and the ed-biz leeches surely will. "Training of teachers and school principals," for example. How much more training do they need, for crying out loud? You already have to have a Master's degree before they'll let you do any serious teaching in this state. I suppose the Devil's Dictionary translation here is: "More sabbaticals and 'professional development' time away from the job." You can bet, at a very minimum, that every one of those spending points will involve the hiring of more people — more public-sector tax-eaters, while the private sector gasps and chokes for air.

Does not everyone by now understand that public money beyond the meager necessities is pure poison to our educational system, a domestic-policy equivalent to the resource curse? Didn't anybody learn anything from the Kansas City fiasco? (How are they doing over there in Kansas City nowadays, by the way? Let's take a look … Oh.)

So much for local and state ed news. What's happening across the nation? Well, the big item recently has been the preparations for next month's opening of the Robert F. Kennedy Schools complex in Los Angeles. The complex cost $578 million. Oh, and:

The RFK complex follows on the heels of two other LA schools among the nation's costliest — the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School that debuted in 2009.

But isn't California looking at a colossal budget deficit? Yes it is. So is the federal government. Leviathan must be fed, though, and there are still a few private-sector taxpayers whose veins have not yet been emptied of all their blood. And this is education we're talking about! It's for the kiddies! What could be more important? Why do you hate children, Mr. Derbyshire?

Here is my prescription for a reform of the nation's education system. First, destroy all the schools. Cart away the rubble for landfill and sow the ground with salt. Abolish the federal Department of Education and all state equivalents. End all education funding from public sources.

If the inhabitants of any district then wish their kids to be educated in schools, let them raise the necessary funds themselves. Then let them build the schools themselves, like zeks. There should be just one federally-approved model: an unheated wood-and-tar-paper structure with plastic sheeting for windows.

Any person above the age of twelve who wishes to attend school should have to stand outside the school gate for a month, in all weathers, pleading to be admitted. There should be a Constitutional Amendment banning any community from employing non-teaching staff in its schools at any ratio to teaching staff higher than one percent. And let's have a federal penalty of 25-to-life for anyone attempting to form a teachers' union.

Crazy, you say? No: spending half a billion dollars you don't have on a school to educate 4,200 students, some high proportion of whom are in the country illegally, is crazy. Shoveling seven hundred million dollars into the public sector of a state whose private sector is withering on the vine, is crazy. Pretending that by spending enough money you can turn every child into a bookish child, is crazy.

Though I'm certainly willing to let my proposal compete in the marketplace of ideas. How about a nationwide referendum: the Derbyshire plan, as above, vs. the Obama plan. The result might, as in our little local referendum here this week, not be the one the ed-biz panjandrums prefer.