Moral Measures, Skin in the Game, and K-12 Education

Four former state secretaries of education banded together to publish an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today in support of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to raise real estate and cigarette taxes to fund the Richmond public school system’s strategic plan. In the op-ed they made a statement that is core to liberal thought:

The moral measure of any community is its commitment to investing in opportunities for its neediest citizens. About 40 percent of children in the city of Richmond live below the poverty line, and nearly three-quarters are economically disadvantaged. All of Richmond’s children deserve the opportunity to reach their potential to be contributing members of society. When that happens, our entire community will benefit.

The answer, of course, is mo’ money. The answer is always mo’ money.

I may not speak for everyone with conservative or libertarian leanings, but I speak for many. We, too, want to create a society in which every Virginia child has access to a good education. We, too, want to see African-American children in Virginia’s inner cities escape the clutches of poverty. We, too, want everyone from every county, city and town in Virginia to become a productive and contributing member of society enjoying a decent standard of living.

We disagree on how to achieve those aims.

After fifty years of pouring money into anti-poverty programs and social safety nets, we don’t see a significant decrease in poverty. Indeed, by some measures, we see poverty becoming more deeply entrenched than ever. We spurn the unstated assumption that the entire obligation to address poverty falls upon “society” as a whole and none upon poor people themselves. That assumption creates a moral hazard that leads to self-defeating behaviors and unintended consequences. Further, we take issue with the notion that redoubling our financial commitment to a dysfunctional system is equivalent to “investing” in children’s future. We reject the idea that the “moral measure of a community” can be measured by how much money it throws at a problem. Squandering money on failed programs may assuage the consciences of former state secretaries of education but it perpetuates a failed system. And by perpetuating a failed system, well-intended thinking hurts the very people it is meant to help.

Oh, and one more thing. We conservatives don’t like it when our moral superiors take our money through taxation to advance their dubious schemes. If they wanted to spend their own money, I’d say, “Be my guest. I admire your idealism. I hope it’s money well spent. If you can demonstrate that your latest social-reformist enthusiasm actually works, come back to me and I’ll contribute, too.”

A root problem with the mo’-money philosophy is that social reformers have no skin in the game. They’re spending other peoples’ money — the taxpayers’. If they “invested” their own money in non-profit ventures, they would be acutely attuned to whether or not their contributions were having the desired effect. They would measure the efficacy of their initiatives and the social return on investment. (Labeling something an “investment” without measuring the return on investment is an oxymoron.) If their favored programs did not have the desired effect, they would insist upon reforming the programs, or they would “invest” their money elsewhere. If they blindly failed to do either, well, they would be flushing their own money down the toilet, not someone else’s.

But feedback is largely absent when government acts as the intermediary and taxpayers are the source of funds. Government programs, once created, become self-perpetuating because those who administer the programs become invested in maintaining and expanding them. Administrators do have “skin in the game” — their pay, their status, their bureaucratic fiefdoms — but their incentive is self preservation and self advancement. Invariably, and this is an iron law, if a program fails to deliver the desired results, the response is to declare, “We need mo’ money.” Bureaucracies are run for the benefit of bureaucrats first, the intended beneficiaries only secondarily, and taxpayers not at all.

How, then, would conservatives go about ensuring greater opportunity for poor, African-American children in Richmond city schools?

First, cease doing harm. While it is possible that Richmond schools (like those of many other school districts) relied excessively upon suspensions, expulsions, and referral to law enforcement authorities, the recently instituted therapeutic approach to maintaining discipline is shaping up as a spectacular failure. Preliminary evidence in the form of falling Standards of Learning test scores over the past two years suggests that a decline in classroom discipline has cut into teaching time and disrupted the education of students who are willing and eager to learn. There are so many variables that affect SOL outcomes, however, that such a conclusion should be regarded as tentative. Unfortunately, it’s not a possibility that educators in the Virginia or Richmond school systems is willing to consider.

Second, provide more school choice. As fellow blogger John Butcher has repeatedly shown — with no credible refutation — even when adjusting for the percentage of minorities and students with disabilities, Richmond schools do a terrible job. They under-perform other school districts with comparable percentages of minorities and disabilities. There is something wrong with the organizational culture of Richmond Public Schools. That organizational culture has defied the efforts of multiple school superintendents in recent years to reform. (Richmond is hardly unique. The same likely could be said of many other under-performing school systems in Virginia.)

The alternative to mo’ money is to foster learning environments that are not rooted in a failed organizational culture. Richmond needs more charter schools. It needs more private schools, supported by tax-advantaged contributions or even vouchers to make them accessible to the poor. Richmond’s affluent families can opt out of the failed educational system by sending their children to private schools or moving to a county school district with better schools. Richmond’s poor families have no alternatives. To conservatives, providing poor families the means to escape a failed and unreformable school system would be a useful “moral measure” of our community.

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12 responses to “Moral Measures, Skin in the Game, and K-12 Education

  1. The simple truth is that money helps poverty. The issue is how much and how effective. But if you gave every child 3 good meals a day, health care, and a private tutor – you’d reduce poverty.

    But you’d NEVER get rid of it – entirely – just as you’d never help every rich kid get an A if you expended unlimited money in an effort to achieve it.

    I’m okay with public tax money going for education other than public schools with one big proviso – they have to meet the same standards for accepting ALL students, be just as transparent and be accountable – in the same way that You and Butcher use that transparency to condemn RPS.

    At the end of the day – you’re not going to fix poverty and the effects of it any better but I’m willing to give it a shot.

    I just think the current narrative of total condemnation – burn it all down .. and try something else – is the stuff of the uber frustrated.

    Our public school systems have NO CHOICE but to educate every single child – no matter the circumstances and that’s a tall order and I doubt seriously that if you put that standard on a private school – that they’d not also “fail”.

    So then we back up to a narrative that says that some kids are too far gone – and they screw up the schools for others so we need to get rid of them. That’s the problem. Those kids do not “evaporate” – the poverty and dysfunction just continues..and we have to spend tax dollars supposedly “saved” on education on dealing with more and more folks who cannot hold a job, We pay for food stamps, housing, medical care, and prisons. How does the “Conservative/Butcher solution” work in that regard?

  2. Poverty being the lack of money, money of course reduces poverty, Larry. Duh. But money spent on government services is less likely to work than cash.

    As a Richmond City taxpayer, my assessment went up 12 percent and now Hizzoner wants to increase the tax rate 9 cents to boot. Combined that’s a pretty good smack, no longer subsidized by the state and feds since I’m now firmly entrenched in the standard deduction. I have zero confidence that the system is running efficiently and cannot cover some costs by economies – in fact, it is well known the system needs to consolidate facilities and could save a bundle that way.

    Hizzoner also wants $5 per carton of smokes, and of course only poor people cannot get in their car and buy tobacco in Chesterfield or Henrico, so clearly Hizzoner has a limited level of compassion for the poor. Only the poor or the stupid will ever pay that tax, the surrounding localities being tax free….

    I’m just not buying it. They have made no case that the money would make any difference at all.

  3. “Money helps poverty.” How much money has the United States spent on eradicating poverty since LBJ’s “War on Poverty” launched in the 1960s? The War on Poverty has employed many people with advanced degrees and made most of them loyal voters for Democrats. But we still have poverty. I guess that means the Democratic Party has a strong interest in maintaining high levels of poverty. Hell, they are set on importing more and more poverty through an effort to sabotage the enforcement of our immigration laws.

    Many people are in poverty because they have had bad luck or found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. But many others make bad decisions one after another. But that’s OK, taxpayers are there to bail them out generation after generation. When have we paid enough? How about reducing the pay of government workers in social services by 25% and funding anti-poverty programs from that pot of gold? After all, there’s no other place for these people to go for employment.

  4. re: ” But money spent on government services is less likely to work than cash.”

    Let me answer BOTH Steve and TMT with a question. Do you think Medicare reduces poverty? Do you think it would work “better” if they just gave you money to spend on health care?

    The premise and expectation that we’ve spent money on poverty and it has not worked is dumb. It’s like saying all those police we’ve paid for hasn’t stopped crime or all that money VDOT has spent on roads hasn’t stopped congestion.

    It’s just not such a simple thing but no shortage of simple-minded thinking …

    In terms of Richmond. One word – white flight. Those who get left behind, get the bill.

    We actually have a similar but much smaller issue in Fredericksburg which has become a magnet for subsidized apartments and low income folks flock to the city – and those who own homes – get the bill.

    Some leave for the counties but the city has a lot of appeal and others stay.

    My understand is that Richmond’s “poverty” is now bleeding into Henrico… no?

    • “My understand is that Richmond’s “poverty” is now bleeding into Henrico… no?” Haha — yes! And Chesterfield. “They’re everywhere.”

    • Larry, you’re the one dodging questions today. Given the trillions spent on reducing/eliminating poverty since the Great Society and the general failure of federal/state/local government programs to reduce, much less eliminate, poverty, why should the public support more programs?

      I will concede that some people are in poverty through simple bad luck or physical condition. But more people are poor because they make bad decisions over and over again. Why does society have a duty to bail out people from the results of their bad decisions? If you enable bad decisions/bad behavior, you get more of it.

      Every parent has faced the problem of when to stop bailing out their kids and making them suffer the hard consequences of bad decision-making. Each kid presents different circumstances but at some time, a kid needs to accept the consequences of bad decisions. Otherwise, when bad decisions have no negative consequences, more and more bad decisions are made.

      I guess your position is that all the people who generally don’t make bad decisions over and over again need to sacrifice their income, their dreams and quality of life to bail out people who make bad decisions consistently. And from there, it’s just a small step to AOC’s ideal world where we must meet the financial needs of those unwilling to work.

      When has society done enough?

  5. I think we’re all about ready to find out if money fixes poverty and “institutional racism” (disregarding Nigerians, Asians, and India-indians if course).
    As the pendulum swings due to “orange man bad” and “white man bad” political syndromes, we are very likely going to see a blue Virginia and possibly a completely blue US government.
    I hope the morally superior get to have their skin partially removed for their games.
    The talk of 70% wealth reassignment should have them a tad concerned. I guess Becky won’t be shopping at Lululemon and Keith won’t be getting an iPhone XTi… oh and when the housing and stock markets dive because discretionary investment money is gone it’ll then get real. But we’ll have economic justice for the masses (again disregard the ruling class… they don’t count)!
    Y’all might want to teach your kids to hunt and fish now. There will only be so many zoo animals to go around.

  6. NorthsideDude

    I love your commentary, sharp, punchy, original, insightful, on target, too – it grabs my attention while hitting me upside the head.

    Like his slap: “Y’all might want to teach your kids to hunt and fish now. There will only be so many zoo animals to go around.”

    Despite all that genius, I got a bone to pick, this: “I think we’re all about ready to find out if money fixes poverty and “institutional racism” (disregarding Nigerians, Asians, and India-indians …).”

    Why? Because we already know that money don’t fix poverty and institutional racism, only makes both worse, in the minds of a least half of us anyways, and its less than a nose away, staring us in face.

    Try this in five easy steps:
    1. Draw the letter U,
    2. Turn letter U onto one of its sides,
    3. Mark bottom left hand end of U “1900 (Gilded Age)”,
    4. Mark top left hand of end of U “2o20 (Gilded Age)”,
    5. Mark middle right hand end of U “1959 (American Dream Era).”

    1959 statistically was the apotheosis of American Dream.


    The gap between the rich and poor was the smallest ever. The middle class was largest ever percentage wise. Plus the relative rise of the poor into the middle class was highest ever. All this happened between 1900 and 1959.

    Then Surprise, Surprise:

    The reverse happened between 1960 and 2019, America tumbled black into its second Gilded Age. Plus its society tumbled back into post civil war ruins.

    Why? Many reasons. One is that ultimately money is root of all evil.

    • The Wall Street Journal today confirmed my comment immediately above in an article titled “The War on Poverty Remains a Stalemate. Professors. Eric Hunushek at Stanford and Paul Peterson at Harvard, conclude that:

      “Since 1980 the Federal Government has spent almost $500 Billion (in 2017 dollars) on compensatory education and another $250 billion on Head Start programs for low income preschoolers” with no apparent positive result whatsoever.

      To prove this abhorrent result, “we tracked achievement gaps between those born into families with the highest and lowest levels of education and household resources.” Namely the preexisting gaps between the top 10% versus the bottom 10% at 14 years old, and also at 17 years old, have not narrowed over the past 50 years, since the War on Poverty was launched.

      Thus “For those who were born in 2001 and turned 14 in 2015 the (achievement) gap was still three to four years. Similarly, the 75%-25% gap remained wide – between 2.5 and 3 years …”

      “Also, the persistence of these gaps is not caused by changes in schools ethic composition.” Nor are these Federal programs lifting all boats. Neither the haves nor the have-nots are making any achievement progress at all in student performance. Nobody is improving. And those who do fall back to their earlier lowest levels by the time the reach 17 years old.

      In short our Federal Government has wasted $750 Billion.

  7. One of the biggest causes of the increased gap in wealth was the 1990s show-boating of various Democrats in Congress who wanted to limit the corporate tax deductibility of compensation for the top four (?) executives to one million. Of course, this stunt didn’t include limits on actors, recording stars, athletes, etc. Realizing the economic foolishness, Congress said higher amounts could be deducted if they were tied to targets. So companies came up with crazy targets and tied ever-growing amounts of compensation to those targets.

    Another major cause of inequality is the huge number of people working in social service jobs (the professional caring class) whose very economic existence depends on the continued existence of bad decisions and increased poverty.

    • Two, among many, of causes for this increased gap in wealth between upper classes and everyone else in American include:

      1. Lack of affordable housing in strong neighborhoods.

      This prices the middle and lower class out of communities that are able to provide the support system that all kids need to grow up competent in society. Thus more and more kids lack the support system that teaches them the basic social skills and confidence they need to engage all of society, such as manners and ethics, and self awareness and control, and empathy for others, and spiritual strength, that we all need, rich and poor alike, to engage productively with the challenges of our lives and highly diverse society, so as to survive and thrive and contribute too our world. And this gross lack today starts with very basics like forming, building and maintaining our families, producing children who are able improve our world, and care of its elders.

      2/ Lack of educational systems that strengthens its students and our society. Instead we have built an educational system that destroys our kids and our society by its bad and corrupt habits. Habits that undermine its student’s cultural inheritance, that drives their tuition payments and other costs up so high that it either shuts most of our children out of an education altogether or, in the alternative, so burdens many of those who do attend with so a heavy a debt that it throttles their ability to realize the fruits of what education they do receive.

      And that system of education compounds injury to students by mandating, creating and celebrating a caste system, that it builds within groups of students, a system that increasingly demeans the vast majority of students, while it falsely inflates and warps the egos of other groups newly built within other student bodies, while at the same time the system isolates all of its students into ever refined and and increasing numbers of groups, each group then becoming ever more estranged from and against the other groups, all fueled by gap growing ignorance between them. And all this malpractice within our system of education is further exacerbated by our schools chronically refusing to grade the performance of their kids in their learning, and instead fraudulently inflating kids grades. So no our kids get the the worst of all worlds. They all to often learn little or nothing by bad habit, while the system of higher education sinks them into a debt so heavy it throttle their ability to gain independence and freedom for viably future once out of school.

      • Correction to last three sentences above:

        This malpractice within our education system is again compounded by our schools’ chronic refusal to grade the performance of their kids in their learning, and to instead fraudulently inflate their kids grades, typically to As and Bs.

        So now our kids get the worst of all worlds. They all too often learn little or nothing but bad habits in school, while they are also unaware of their lack of learning until they enter the real world after their schooling that by then all too often has sunk them into a debt so heavy that it throttles independence and freedom t0 launch quickly into their future once out of school.

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