A historian at Penn makes the case that education is a welfare benefit then goes on to virtually endorse it as such. “Welfare is the most despised public institution in America,” Michael Katz writes in the Summer 2010 issue of Dissent, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania. “Public education is the most iconic.” [Italics in original.]
“To associate them with each other will strike most Americans as bizarre, even offensive.” Katz then goes on to do just that.
“First, most concretely, for more than a century schools have been used as agents of the welfare state to deliver social services, such as nutrition and health,” Katz writes. “Today, in poor neighborhoods, they often provide hot breakfasts among other services.”
“More to the point, public school systems administer one of the nation’s largest programs of economic redistribution.” In the end, he decides that he likes it this way.
“The danger is that high-stakes tests and stiffer graduation requirements will further stratify citizenship among the young, with kids failing tests joining stay-at-home mothers and out-of-work black men as the ‘undeserving poor,’” he concludes. “In this way, public education complements the rest of the welfare state as a mechanism for reproducing, as well as mitigating, inequality in America.”
To be fair, the bulk of Katz’s article is a cogent description of America’s welfare state and how it came into being. Along the way, he also demolishes a number of myths.
“International comparisons usually brand the United States a welfare laggard because it spends less of its national income on welfare-related benefits than do other advanced industrial democracies,” he writes. “But the comparisons leave out spending on public education, private social services, employer-provided health care and pensions, and benefits delivered through the tax code, a definitional weakness whose importance
will become clearer when I describe the architecture of the welfare state.”
Katz also delivers an inside view of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind educational reforms that too many parents have experienced up close and personal. “At the same time, a countervailing trend, represented by the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind legislation and the imposition of standards, limited the autonomy of individual teachers and schools and imposed new forms of centralization,” he notes. “At least, that was the intent.”
“In fact, left to develop their own standards, many states avoided penalties mandated in No Child Left Behind by lowering the bar and making it easier for students to pass the required tests.”
Yet and still, Katz betrays the faith in government action that only an academic or a policy wonk at George Soros’s Open Society Institute (OSI) could have. Katz, as it happens, has been affiliated with both the Ivy League and OSI.
“In 2003–2004, public elementary and secondary education in the United States cost $403 billion or, on average, $8,310 per student (or, taking the median, $7,860),” Katz points out. “Most families paid nothing like the full cost of this education in taxes.”
“Property taxes, which account for a huge share of spending on public schools, average $935 per person or, for a family of four, something under $4,000, less than half the average per-pupil cost. As rough as these figures are, they do suggest that most
families with school-age children receive much more from spending on public education than they contribute in taxes. (A similar point could be made about public higher education.)”
But for that same amount, the undeserving poor could actually get an education with a voucher in a private school. Moreover, test scores and dropout rates have not reversed while education spending has grown and public schools have moved beyond mere instruction as a result of mission creep.
Meanwhile, an increasingly voluminous body of literature questions the value of higher education, public and private. In fact, institutions of higher learning are now trying hard to come up with a “rubric” that will show that they are valuable.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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