Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Equality vs Freedom: Public Education and the Politics of Envy

While citizens around the country are loudly demanding for lower taxes and reductions in government spending, a group of Kansas City moms want the opposite. Parents in a wealthy suburban district voted to increase their property taxes to improve their local public school, and ironically, they are being opposed by the Republican Governor, Sam Brownback, who said that local school districts cannot raise taxes to improve the quality of their particular schools because all public school must remain relatively equal, even if that means relatively mediocre.

The conflict between these suburban moms and the state of Kansas highlights how the well-intentioned quest for equality and social justice not only inevitably leads to violations of individual liberty and the principle of subsidiarity but sanctifies the immoral impulse to envy another’s good fortune.

The nonsense masquerading as justice that often characterizes public policy induces some of us to dream of amending that famous John Lennon song, perhaps, adding to his “imagine there is no country,” imagine there is no state and no public schools to defend their existence through civic courses. But this is admittedly a far-fetched fantasy. Back on Earth, the state and its wasteful and mediocre public institutions are a well-entrenched reality. Thus, the lover of liberty can only hope minimize its damages by exposing the fallacies and injustices in its upside down morality.

In the case of the Kansas suburban mothers, the state, having placed these mothers in a situation that diminishes their right as parents to educate their children as they see fit, adds insult to injury by denying them the right to direct that education in ways that they see fit even at their own expense. Governor Brownback responded that parents still have the right to hire private tutors for their children. Great! Let us not be ungrateful for small favors. However, what the parents cannot do is raise money through the means that the government renders most sensible, i.e., taxes to add enrichment programs such as violin classes or Chinese language instruction. One might hope that these women could find more creative ways to augment their children's education, but that does not justify the state of Kansas arrogating what ought to be a local issue.

Certainly, these parents have the option of placing their children in private school where such niceties maybe available. However, they already pay for their children’s education through taxes, an arrangement they cannot opt out of even if they wish to, and the most efficient way to supplement that education is by adding funds to those that they are already forced to pay. Since the overwhelming majority of states do not allow parents to use vouchers to patronize private schools, parents are essentially forced to buy whatever product produced by their neighborhood public school. Those who understand basic economics know that the inevitable outcome of such a monopolistic arrangement is a low quality product at an ever increasing cost.

In addition, this arrangement violates the principle of subsidiarity. The Principle of subsidiarity is a Catholic Social Teaching doctrine that states that no function should be organized at a higher level that can be organized at a lower level. For example, it would be not only be imprudent but unjust for the city mayor to intrude into someone’s home to assure that the parents are feeding their children three healthy square meals a day. Or it would be equally problematic for the state government to interfere with such local matters like a community recreation center.

The Catholic Church also teaches that the right and duty to educate one’s children belongs naturally to parents. It would seem, to me, that given that parents have this right and obligation, the very existence of a massive public school system under the direction of the Federal Department of Education, far removed from the parents and local communities affected by such decision, at the very least threatens to encroach on the natural rights of parents. This is, of course, my view and Catholics of good will are not obliged to interpret the Church’s social doctrine in such a manner.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in this particular case the rights of parents and the principle of subsidiarity are indeed being violated. Competent and caring parents are being denied the right to educate their children in ways that they deem appropriate by the state of Kansas. Parents are being told exactly what must be provided by their local schools from forces outside their community for reasons that have nothing to do with their particular community.

The excuse for state and federal government to encroach upon these rights is allegedly equity and quality. However, it is clear that they have achieved no such thing. Since the creation of the Department of Education, the quality of education has continued to decline and the recent national effort to improve student achievement, No Child Left Behind, has been an abysmal failure. The state has not achieved its admitted laudable goal of narrowing the achievement gap with respect to race and class. Despite their numerous regulations and generous public spending, only 47% of black young men graduate from high school compared to 78% of their white counterparts. This is a tragic and troubling statistics, but its resolution is beyond the competence of the government bureaucrats. Even if one does not acknowledge the moral wisdom of the principle of subsidiarity, it ought to be adopted by non-Catholics purely on its utilitarian merits.

The worst part of these efforts at achieving social justice is that they place a cloak of morality over that which is inherently immoral. In this particular case, Alan Cunningham, the superintendent of a poorer school district, is joining the state of Kansas in its suit to keep the parents from being able to raise their own property taxes. His reason for doing so is that his district is already having a hard time competing with these parents. Therefore, he seems to imagine that he has a civic duty to assure that the children of affluent, suburban parents do not receive an even better education. What exactly is moral about trying to deny to other children what their parents are able to afford them? Our political class has successful canonized the sinful impulse of envy and calls it social justice.


beth said...

"Our political class has successful canonized the sinful impulse of envy and calls it social justice."

Carolyn, this just really rings a bell for me. I'm very much a social justice person, but I can see how much envy can play into the struggle for justice. When we are envious of the rich, we will never be satisfied with what we have, and what kind of Christianity is that?

I sure wish "downward mobility" would catch on. Most of us are more than well taken care of and we don't even know it because we're always imagining that somebody else is better off.

Anyway, thank you for your clear, honest and insightful writing. You open doors for me!

Carolyn Hyppolite said...

Hi Beth,

Thanks for your comment. We certainly must be concerned about social injustice where it exists and it is actually ubiquitous. I just wish we were more creative about how to tackle it. And of course, we can't tackle it by using unethical means.

Dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave said...

As an employee of a public school system, I hate to bite the hand that feeds me, but I have to agree with most of your thoughts on public education. While most of the people I work with (I'm not a teacher), are thoughtful with the use of tax dollars, I can still see waste in the system. My greatest concern though, is the level of mediocrity that we are forced to accept, because of the "one size fits all" attitude of our system. Only when all parents are free to choose between a public or private school, will the public schools be forced to compete for students, and become more efficient and effective. That's why I support private school vouchers for all.