Bankrupting Government to Achieve Educational Utopia

Like the Energizer Bunny, radical egalitarians just keep on going and going no matter how futile their utopian schemes and all the wasted money. This is particularly true in education where levelers are convinced that they can coerce government to ensure that everybody -- regardless of race, sex, ethnicity or whatever -- can be all (and equally) academically proficient.

This misguided passion has existed for decades, but for the last forty years it has entailed going to court to demand judges direct schools with large disadvantaged population to dramatically up spending to achieve the equality supposedly required by the state’s constitution. An organization called the Education Law Center (ELC), for example, has a national network of lawyers to sue states plus workshops to bring lawyers together to promote their egalitarian agenda. They have been active in every state, and while the ELC may have had notable legal victories, whether these legal wins have accomplished much beyond bloating educational budgets is debatable.

One would think that in today’s troubled time when governments struggle to provide basic services, these egalitarians would go on vacation and wait for a more plentiful era to launch their utopian schemes. In fact, it is estimated that as a result of the virus, states will cut some $57 billion in aid for local school budgets, a staggering amount considering how cities themselves are hurting financially.

The egalitarian passion was recently illustrated in Michigan, where plaintiffs (technically a group of students) revived an ongoing class-action lawsuit (Gary B. v. Whitmer) in which they claimed that Detroit’s dreadful schools (see here for grim details) had denied them a “minimum education” and this denial violated their constitutional right to literacy. In particular, their schools provided inadequate teaching in unsafe, vermin-infested buildings. Happily for these students, the Sixth Circuit of Appeals agreed that they had, indeed, been denied a “fundamental right.” But this one decision hardly ends it -- the case now returns to the federal district court to be relitigated. Yes, Detroit may be unable to pay its bills, but rest assured, if these students eventually win, city employees may lose their jobs and the city will continue to deteriorate, but Detroit’s disadvantaged youngster’s students will, supposedly, be academically proficient.

Clearly, if this case winds its way to the Supreme Court and at least five justices concur that literacy and numeracy are 14th Amendment-protected constitutional rights, the financial impact -- especially now -- will be catastrophic nationally. The numbers can be huge, for example, in 2010-2011 New York State was ordered to spend an additional $7 billion on its schools to achieve more equitable outcomes. And recall these this campaign is ongoing nationally nor are these demands a one-time event since, at least in principle, failure to accomplish equality can bring new litigation.

Good intentions aside, all these billions will be in vain: the quest is hopeless. For nearly a half century, educators of all ideological stripes under countless circumstances have attempted to eliminate these gaps, and none have succeeded. Educational spending is at an all-time high but this generosity has not narrowed gaps. To be sure, as these egalitarians will inform the judges, there have been occasional success, for example, a test score may jump a bit in one grade after some intervention, but such success are typically tiny and often disappear.

Moreover, it is bizarre to argue that a legal brief reflecting a few cherry-picked successes can create a coherent educational formula to reverse decades of innumerable failures costing billions. Even if the judge orders the school district to spend millions, recipients disagree on how to proceed: thousands of educators, union officials, politicians, and ideologues of all stripes each have their “guaranteed” favorite. More pre-school? Raise teacher salaries? Rebuild decrepit schools?  Return to basics? Smaller classes? Hire teachers who look like their students? The catalogue is endless and incoherent.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame in 2010 gave schools in Newark, New Jersey (disproportionately black low-performing students) $100 million and this, with a few slight exceptions failed to move the needle appreciably. Other philanthropists matched his generosity, and not even $200 million accomplished much of note (details can be found here). Alas, failed Manhattan Project-like interventions in education are typical.

All this newfound money, moreover, fails to address an especially formidable obstacle to better learning -- student motivation (see here, Ch. 3 for details). To be blunt, many struggling underperforming students just don’t care about school and boosting motivation has long befuddled teachers. It’s hardly a snap to push struggling students to show up regularly, pay rapt attention, and otherwise mend their dissolute ways. Equally important, how many teachers and students will welcome newly imposed tough old-fashioned discipline, high standards, and eliminating PC fluff? Imagine the reaction to educators in Baltimore who were informed that progress required the wholesale expulsion of troublemakers and chronic failures? This would drastically cut state funding and bring unemployment.

All these court-funded elixirs further assume that dramatic improvements can be accomplished without major housecleanings -- ineffective teachers and administrators will be transformed if only given larger budgets. A highly dubious assumption, at best, the equivalent of chronic losing sports team winning a championship thanks to higher salaries and better equipment. It is no accident that coaches tasked with revamping perennial disasters typically begin with major personnel changes, not fancier locker rooms. Alas, such mass firings are impossible in terrible school districts (Newark did buy out the contracts of a few terrible teachers, but this was, obviously, insufficient).    

Lastly, and most telling, limits likely exist to fixing “broken schools” without addressing substantial non-classroom obstacles. A judicial decree cannot fix chaotic, fatherless families and cultures that celebrate an anti-intellectual mentality. Schools can feed the hungry, but no court order can force parents to encourage dutiful educational habits, And this is all besides the unspeakable issue of whether today’s disadvantaged youngsters are intellectually capable of being academically proficient.

Can these judge-shopping egalitarians be prevented from bankrupting countless already financially desperate cities? Alas, nobody can stop these lawsuits overseen by friendly judges happy to embrace shoddy arguments, and pleading “we can’t afford it” or “it will never work” has never impeded utopians. What is to be done?

The only solution is to remove the incentives for this misguided social engineering by litigation. To be frank, this litigation thrives because it promises more jobs in cities with large black (and Hispanic) populations, but enthusiasm will cool once it is realized that this is a zero-sum game. It robs Peter to pay Paul -- states will pay for this judicial mandate, but this invariably means city belt tightening elsewhere as state-supplied funds decline. And at least cities will get something from providing basic services versus wasting yet more money chasing an egalitarian fantasy. In today’s financially troubled times a better strategy might be to cut education expenses by sending struggling students to far cheaper charter schools that will have powerful incentives to boost test scores. Now, at least, cops and firemen can keep their jobs. Time to pull the plug on this misguided but alluring litigation.     

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