Blogging again after a week on vacation. I could say I’m glad to be back, but given that I was here, that would be an egregious lie.
On Monday, Governor Eliot Spitzer made a big announcement about school funding in New York, supporting a multi-billion dollar increase in resources, but saying that the money would come with strings attached to new standards for high performance. Specifically, he said:
“My vision for education reform is built on a single premise: To be effective, new funding must be tied to a comprehensive agenda of reform and accountability.”
The details are forthcoming, and so this will sink or swim based on whether the implementation is smart and well-integrated into established accountability systems. But there is a very important symbolic issue here as well, one that could more significant in the long run than what actually happens in New York.
Supporters of more school funding, who tend to be liberals, Democrats, and/or people working in schools, basically have three options:
1) Fight the proposal, on the grounds that more state-based accountability and performance-driven oversight is a bad idea. In other words, the money isn’t worth the strings.
2) Accept the proposal, on the grounds that the money is worth the strings, but in a grudging fashion, taking many opportunities along the way to grumble that while this is an okay deal, more money with fewer (that is, no) strings would be a lot better.
3) Support the proposal wholeheartedly.
Some ostensible school funding supporters will choose (1), but most will probably choose (2). This is a bad and ultimately short-sighted choice to make. In the long run, (3) is the only way to go, both in terms of what’s right for kids, but also purely in terms of the cause of more school funding.
Here’s why: Before I moved to Washington, DC to write blogs and do other, more productive work, I spent six years working in the Indiana Statehouse, focusing on tax policy, budgeting, and school finance. I spent two of those years working as the chief adviser to the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. The committee had a Budget subcommittee, chaired by a Republican.
I didn’t agree with his politics, but I had a lot of respect for him as a person and a legislator. He was a retired farmer and a Quaker with a Harvard M.B.A, a conservative in the sensible midwestern way. He thought that public resources should be spent sparingly and wisely, a principle that’s hard to argue with, regardless of your politics. He was also a really nice, even-tempered guy. It took a lot to make him angry.
But it happened, as it did one day when some group or another was making a particularly ill-conceived and poorly justified plea to the committee for a sizable increase in state appropriations. I don’t remember if it was an education group or not, but their request basically boiled down to, “We think you should give us many millions of new dollars, on the grounds that we deserve it, and would probably be better off with that money than without it, all things considered.”
To which the chairman reddened, shook his finger, and said “What you’re asking is for the taxpayers of Indiana to give you more money for the same thing. And I am not going to do that.”
Needless to say, he didn’t. He wasn’t a maniac anti-government conservative who thought that taxation was tantamount to theft. He thought the government did a lot of good–that’s why he ran for office. He just thought it should do good in a restrained, efficient way.
The point being, most people in this country feel this way. There’s really no such thing as big-government liberalism in 2007. There might have been once, but that was a long time ago. Hard-core anti-government conservatives are better represented on talk radio and in Congress and the White House than they are in the real world. Most people will pay taxes with relatively few complaints as long as they’re reasonable and used for something useful. And education is pretty high on their list of useful things.
But there’s a catch: they, like the chairman, don’t want to pay more money for the same thing. This is completely sensible. It is the instinct that Eliot Spitzer is speaking to. It’s the right thing to do from a policy perspective; there are a lot of children out there suffering in schools that are both under-funded and badly run. The only way to help them is to tackle both problems forcefully, at the same time.
Crucially, it’s also the right thing politically. It’s the path to broad public support for financial help for public education. There are a lot of people out there who could be convinced to pay for or even sacrifice on behalf of the public schools, not just the schools their kids go to but all public schools, if they could only have some reasonable assurance that the money would mean something, that it would be spent wisely and well.
Unfortunately, our education system has been trapped for decades in a unspoken agreement between conservatives who care more about keeping taxes low than improving the schools and left-leaning interest groups who care more about protecting the status quo than improving school funding. Neither will budge, and the students lose.
That’s why it’s incumbent on school funding supporters to not just go along with proposals like Spitzer’s–assuming the particulars are well-thought out–but embrace them. To hold them up as the first, best option. That’s what it will take to get the majority of the citizens to a place where they’ll support the kind of broad, far-reaching funding reforms that many schools really need.