I happened to hear New York City’s well-regarded chancellor of public schools, Joel Klein, speak at the “math prom” — the annual dinner hosted by Math For America — Saturday night. First thought: “Chancellor” is an awfully inflated title for the guy who runs the local schools. We could do with some title deflation in American government. Second thought: His speech was shockingly vapid, a content-free bit of boilerplate hardly worthy of a Rotarians’ luncheon in Muleshoe, Texas.
Maybe, I thought, he had more important things to do. Apparently not: He has signed his name to a shockingly vapid, content-free bit of boilerplate published in the Washington Post, along with such heroes of education reform as Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas, the man who rightly decided that rebuilding New Orleans’s schools from soggy scratch was easier than rebuilding Philadelphia’s. The piece really made me sad: If this is the best the best of our reformers can do, it’s time to call it a night.
Here’s a bit that stood out: “Let’s stop ignoring basic economic principles of supply and demand and focus on how we can establish a performance-driven culture in every American school — a culture that rewards excellence, elevates the status of teachers and is positioned to help as many students as possible beat the odds.” Yes, let’s. Okay, geniuses, basic economic principles: Your schools are government-chartered monopolies that do not have to compete for funds. You cannot draw a good supply-and-demand graph for a government-monopoly enterprise (I may as well just go ahead and write “socialist enterprise,” since that is what our government schools are: direct public provision of non-public goods). Basic economic principles really only come into play when consumers have a choice. Your consumers get their houses foreclosed on or go to jail if they don’t comply with your demands. It’s not an economics problem, it’s a politics problem.
The closest these heroes of reform get to calling out the worst of the culprits — the self-serving union bosses who run the most effective protection racket in American politics — is this weak tea: “It’s time for all of the adults — superintendents, educators, elected officials, labor unions and parents alike — to start acting like we are responsible for the future of our children. Because right now, across the country, kids are stuck in failing schools, just waiting for us to do something.” Well, raise my rent. You’ve only had 40 years of public-school decline to figure that out. What else did you learn at Harvard?
Everybody who signed this op-ed needs to hear it: You are the problem. Everybody who acts like we can tinker with the state monopoly on education and get radically better results is working to ensure that our present system survives to inflict its dysfunctional results on another generation of Americans who cannot afford its failures. The tone of the piece — its self importance, its insularity — speaks for itself. Read it and weep.