Sunday, December 4, 2016

Cream-Based Politics

Trump has named Betsy DeVos to head the department of education.  She's a huge proponent of charters, vouchers, and choice; privatized education.  The selling idea is government institutions fail poor kids and "choice" provides a ticket out by allowing them some selectivity in schooling.

School "choice" is interesting because of what it reveals about the conservative perspective.  On the one hand, government provision of education is seen as to blame for "poor" schools; private, competitive charters would do a better job.  However, conservatism also blames the poor for their poverty, and looks to a breakdown in family and "culture of poverty" to explain the dysfunction we see in these communities.  This breakdown would clearly lead to "poor" schools, would it not?   However, maybe we are dealing with children, and so it is only fair to help them.  But shouldn't that be a job for the parents?  Why should the government be involved in rectifying the manifestation of social problems in children?

You can see how messy this gets.  "Choice" is kind of a fun way out.  It embraces free market principles.  In theory it promises a better education to all - even specifically the poor.  But it also performs a neat trick: government is no longer required to provide a proper education to all.  In effect, the burden is placed on the parent to send their child to a "quality" school.  This introduces an element of selectivity into the process.  Poor parents who want the best for their kids - and more important know how to get it, are now given an option to do so.  Previously, they would have been required to send their kids to their local school, whose demographic would have guaranteed the school to be failing.

This is great news for these parents.  And I don't doubt they deserve it.  I would want the same if I was in their position.  However, the issue is now the families who have been left behind.  The only reason the "choice" model works is because of its selectivity - poor kids (yet with motivated and accountable parents, who as any teacher will tell you are 80% of the battle) get to be with higher-capital kids (better income, education and motivated parents).  The only way you make butter is by removing the cream.

Now how are we going to make butter with the milk left over?  I don't have any answers.  But what I can do is raise questions about the fundamental issue involved.  My concern is that conservative ideology is very comfortable with what you might call cream-based-politics.  In theory, a robust social understanding of poor communities would involve grasping the functional relationships involved in barriers to success.  Yet because conservatism's ur-fear is government intrusion into the lives of the citizenry, these functional relationships frighten them to death.  Better to turn away and hand wave about "personal responsibility" or "market forces".  Choice bows to the latter and hides behind the former in doling out goodies to the selected poor while conveniently averting its gaze from those unable to "self-select".

Furthermore, the "starve the beast" tradition inevitably continue apace: poor schools housing the "unselected" will of course have even more difficulty in educating a student body composed of increasingly disadvantaged children.  Yet the schools' failure will not be seen as a function of this dynamic, but rather more evidence of government ineptitude.

And the graduates of such wretched institutions?  They will continue to stock our prisons and fill out our underclass, performing our menial labour and dutifully providing a reminder of how morally upstanding, intelligent and hard-working the rest of us are.

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