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.