Alignment Of Interests In Education Policy

Richard Kahlenberg reviews Steven Brill:

While Brill compares teachers’ union leaders to Saddam Hussein loyalists and South African apartheid officials, he seems oddly convinced that the hedge fund billionaires who are so enthusiastic about charter schools have only the interests of children at heart. But might it be in the self-interest of very wealthy individuals to suggest that expensive efforts at reducing poverty are not necessary, and that a non-union teaching environment will do the trick? I have no doubt that many good-willed hedge fund managers sincerely want to improve outcomes for low-income students, but I wish Brill, a veteran journalist, had been more skeptical about their expertise. Union critics are right to say that the interests of teachers and students are not perfectly aligned, but cannot the same be said of the hedge fund community and students? When hedge fund managers argue that their income should be taxed at a 15 percent marginal rate, they limit government revenue and squeeze funds for a number of public pursuits, including schools. Is that putting the interests of kids ahead of adults, as the reformers suggest we should always to do?

The analogy here seems to me to be more exact than Kahlenberg thinks. Anti-poverty programs would be desirable, and I think everyone claims to believe that reducing poverty would be good. But teachers unions don’t want to raise the revenue for anti-poverty programs by cutting school budgets, and hedge fund managers don’t want to raise the revenue for anti-poverty programs by paying higher taxes. By the same token, admirals don’t want to fight poverty by cutting spending on the Navy, coal companies don’t want to fight poverty with a carbon tax, etc. Nobody wants to see their ox gored, news at eleven.

What’s more, this whole framing of the issue, though increasingly common, strikes me as something of a non-sequitur. At the federal level, President Obama’s support for charter schools hasn’t stopped him from increasing SNAP benefits and presiding over a gigantic Medicaid expansion. But the bulk of K-12 education spending happens at the state and local level, where it’s not like Cory Booker or Kevin Johnson has the option of taxing hedge fund managers to finance a locally driven war on poverty. Education is already the largest component of state and local spending.

This argument seems particularly odd, since unless he’s completely changed his mind about everything in the past six months I think his actual view isn’t that to improve educational output we need to end poverty it’s that we need to promote economically integrated schools which isn’t the same thing.