Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Blunt Implements

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So, I’ve been thinking.

Isn’t it possible that a good policy could be wrongly implemented, and be bad in its implementation but good if implemented correctly?

The movement for equitable funding of schools is not stupid or vicious, and I don’t see that it’s inherently totalitarian, either. 

It says, simply, that every school district should be as fully funded as any other, that where you live should not impact the resources available to your child at his public school.

In the US, schools are generally funded by local real estate taxes. This situation creates a number of anomalies.  Rich school districts (Wilton and Westport in CT, say, or Armonk in New York, Beverley Hills in California, Winetka in Illinois) fund their public schools lavishly.

And I use that word advisedly.

Schools in districts like these not only have shiny new buildings and enough textbooks and school supplies to serve all their students several times over.  They often have full working professional grade theaters so that the drama club can do musical comedies, local-reach television and radio studios so students can produce their own shows, Olympic sized pools to use for gym class.  They offer every sport under the sun, and provide every kid who wants to learn a musical instrument with the instrument, free of charge, as long as he’s in the program.  They offer dozens of AP courses, plus half a dozen languages (Wilton even offers ancient Greek). 

People bitch about American public schools, but a first rate American school system beats anything on earth.

Down the road at the poor school, though,  the building is falling down, kids have to share books, and teachers stop at Staples to make sure they’ll have chalk for class.  Sports are restricted to one a season–usually football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring–if they are offered at all. 

Some of these poor schools are in inner cities, where the expenditure is high but the results are abysmal, for a number of reasons.  But some of these poor schools are in poor rural districts where the expenditures are low because the people just don’t have the money to pay for all the bells and whistles.

What equitable funding advocates usually want–what they advocate for–is to move funding from local districts to the state government, and then to provide every school district with enough money to provide a Wilton-level facility to its students.

What Act 60 in Vermont actually did was to keep the local funding, more or less, and to try to equalize expenditure by raising local real estate taxes to cover discrepancies in funding between districts. 

It then used a formula for those discrepancies that pretty much did the opposite of what the equitable funding movement wants–it set the lowest school expenditure as the standard, rather than the highest.  Then it raised real estate taxes in any town that wanted to provide their children with more than the benchmark.

That is, it ended up penalizing towns for wanting to spend more than the minimum on their local schools.

I don’t think the advocates of equitable funding are being disingenuous when they say that equitable funding in Vermont was badly implemented, or that it wasn’t what they wanted. 

In fact, it wasn’t what they wanted.

Whether it could have been done their way and worked is still out for judgment.  We just don’t know. 

And my problems with equitable funding are not addressed by better implementation.

But it seems to me that it is quite possible for me to want X and to support what I think is an attempt to get X done, only to find that the nuts and bolts don’t work out the way I’m expecting them to.

In the case of Act 60, a fair number of equitable funding advocates were arguing against it even as it was being passed.  Support for the bill was largely coming from people so doctrinaire that they were incapable of hearing any criticism of the actual bill because they were too busy identifying in their heads with their imaginary ones.

Oh, and from those poor districts who didn’t care what way equitable was defined, as long as it meant that richer districts didn’t have more than they did.

And I’ll quarantee you that the day to day politics of those two groups of people were, literally, polar opposites. 

But in terms of the doctrinaire thing, you saw much the same process during the health care debate this past summer. 

In fact, you heard it in the comments on this blog.

I’m a long-time advocate of universal single payer.  I think there are good reasons why serious health care cannot function well as a market.

But single payer is not what we got, and this bill is largely a disaster on almost every front.  It will almost certainly reduce the numbers of people with coverage, make the coverage of the rest of us worse, and raise premiums through the rooftops.

But since most of the people making those points were Republicans, a big swath of people supported the health care bill as it is because they automatically support anything the Republicans oppose.

And they don’t believe that the bill as is will actually do all those things like reduce coverage and raise premiums because–well, the Republicans are saying that, and the Republicans always lie.

The Republicans shouldn’t get too complacent about this, though, because a good hefty chunk of their own base does the same thing, only in reverse.   In fact, playing to the conviction that all “liberals” do is lie is why Ann Coulter has a career.

This is, at least in part, what I was talking about when I was talking about identity politics–this is the politics not of convictions, but of  self-identification as part of a group. 

The point is not actual identificaion with any particular policy or set of policies. The point is to construct a personal identity first and worry about the rest later.

Or never.

Because if you feel you have no anchor, no you-ness of you to hold your feet to the ground, the chances are that finding something to substitute will be your first and most important goal.

Let me try to say, again, that I don’t think most people have this particular problem.  In fact, I know they don’t.  

This is a minority problem, but it’s a minority that’s growing. 

And it remains on my list of the mysteries of human nature.

Written by janeh

October 3rd, 2010 at 6:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Blunt Implements'

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  1. If that’s the way Vermont implemented equitable funding, no wonder it’s not working! We have school boards (they insist on callin them ‘districts’ now for some reason) covering larger areas – the areas per board have increased dramatically since I left school due to improved road systems, among other factors- all funded by the provincial government, which has a complicated formula based on number of students plus allowances for extra teachers for extra-small schools or schools with larger numbers of special needs students etc. It’s not perfect, and larger schools still have better facilities and more course offerings than smaller ones (a problem that’s now also being addressed by distance education using the Internet instead of mailed-in assignments and radio programs), but we don’t have some schools teaching ancient Greek and theatre and others without basic arithmetic textbooks.

    There used to be – maybe still are – people around here who kind of inherit their political opinions. People from the Jones family would all be staunch Liberals, and those from the Smith family all staunch Progressive Conservatives, as they were back then. Another example of creating personal identity through political choices, perhaps?

    And maybe it’s not all in the past. I can still slightly shock some of my relatives by expressing certain opinions. Only slightly, though, because after all these years they’re used to me.


    3 Oct 10 at 7:44 am

  2. That was a problem with the previous chain: either Vermont 60 was not what the Connecticut equalization people were advocating–in which case it’s not fair to say they’d be horrified if their own program were implemented–or it was close enough for government work, in which case my criticism pretty well held.

    But as nearly as I can see, policy IS implementation. I don’t think there’s room to say “this is a good program without details.” You have to say “program X done in THIS way will produce these results, and done THAT way, will produce these quite different results.” You don’t have a program of placing fluids in your car. You have a policy of putting gasoline in the fuel tank and changing lubricating oil for the engine, because reversing this would NOT be a detail.

    As far as school funding goes, I’m an advocate of a floor, but not a ceiling. Ensure that every school system has the resources to teach English, mathematics, history and government, and arguably some range of languages. When they’ve reached some property tax rate and can’t make this, I’ve got no problem with the state or federal government making up the difference.

    (Mind you, if it’s my money, I want a look at the books: I don’t see how the District of Columbia can blow through $15,000 per student without corruption well in excess of the national standard. Utah is getting first-rate results for under $6,000.)

    But if Fort Wayne Community Schools wants two gyms in every school, or to remodel “historic” schools when it would have been cheaper to move the students to underutilized ones, or Wilton is willing to spend more tax money to provide additional languages, so be it. Neither program costs the Steuben County taxpayers a dime, not takes textbooks out of Steuben County schools.

    The point of decentralized government is that not all parts of the country–or even the state–value the same things equally. Helping out the poor is one thing. To say that District Y must pay more taxes because District X wants students to be given musical instruments makes no more sense than to say that District A can’t remodel the gym because District B doesn’t want to remodel theirs–but one thing or the other–if not both–is inherent in “equalization.”

    And Coulter would have much lower sales if Pelosi and Obama would stop feeding her good material.


    3 Oct 10 at 10:00 am

  3. I’d agree that policy is in the details, but the people I’m talking about don’t pay attention to the details. They’re not in favor of equitable funding because they’re in favor of equitable funding. They’re in favor of equitable funding because being in favor of equitable funding is a badge of identity.

    The people who are ACTUALLY in favor of equitable funding knew as soon as they saw the bill that it was going to be a disaster, and said so.

    Nobody listened to them, because to oppose the bill was to brand yourself a “conservative,” and therefore somebody who was racist, dishonest, and not-us.

    And there are similar issues on the right, too–issues people support or oppose not because they actually want to get things done, or even because they understand them, but because to support or oppose such an issue is to wear a badge of identity.

    Granted, this is an enormously dysfunctional way to operate political, but I’m coming to believe it’s the way the “base” of both of the parties behaves.


    3 Oct 10 at 10:15 am

  4. I must be slow. “Policy” is the tricky word–too vague to be useful here. “where you live should not impact the resources available to your child at his public school” is an objective. The means chosen to carry it out would be a program or strategy. And yes, certainly some programs or strategies won’t achieve the stated objective.

    But the problem here is that the objective was mis-stated. Vermont 60, as described, achieves the stated objective. The complaints are because the UN-stated objective was “equalizing per-pupil spending at a very high level.” The first step to getting what you want is knowing just what it you want. If you need help from other people, it sometimes helps to let them in on it too.

    Please note that if the unstated goal was “equal educational opportunity for all children,” equal per-pupil spending at the highest level done anywhere in the state still won’t do it. Equal per-student spending won’t equalize pig-ignorant or stupid classmates, nor will it make parents equally helpful or unhelpful at home–not to mention escapes to parochial, private or home schooling. No, you’d have to get rid of families, replacing them with creches, and supervise the kids by means of software to avoid having one creche supervisor better than another.

    Or you could just make sure everyone had the educational resources to reach some specified minimun level of learning.

    All of which said, the basic point about tribalism is well taken. I am just so tired of surveying some disaster or another and being told the perpetrators meant well, or had a wonderful theory.


    4 Oct 10 at 5:23 pm

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