School Reform: Tax Anti-Intellectual Wealth

Benjamin Franklin, an intellectual guy but not a member of any teacher’s union, famously said, “The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance.”

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps this inspired Thomas Jefferson to propose creating a public school system, or what he called “a general diffusion of knowledge.” A couple hundred years later Franklin’s sentence was remodeled (some say by former Harvard President Derek Bok) and became “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” which is pithier and makes a better bumper sticker. Unfortunately, some of our anti- intellectuals in political circles took the bumper sticker to heart and thought, “Well, let’s try ignorance!” This miserly ignorance culminated in the “Tea Party” victories of 2010 and, here in Wisconsin, with an anti-public education revolution led by Gov. Scott Walker.

To be anti-intellectual is not, as historian Richard Hofstadter noted, to be unintelligent; it is to be practical to the point of narrow-mindedness, a focus on “success” in which the core educational value becomes greed. Generally, we live in an anti-intellectual nation whose business is business. This is why Wall Street bankers and corporate executives tend to have more prestige and money in America than, say, teachers and humanists.

Walker’s plan was not to reform the public schools but to undermine them with Act 10 cuts and private school vouchers. Much of the savings from cutting public school funding and other public services would then be redistributed via tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.   After four years of such political ignorance, Wisconsin now faces a diminished public school system, a weakened health care system, and a rural/environmental decline along with a $1.8 billion budget deficit.   The state and the nation suffer from a general diffusion of ignorance funded by the super wealthy under the guise of “grassroots” rebellion. But ignorance is not bliss, even if the wealthy seek to cultivate and preserve it. Ignorance, ultimately, is misery, for there are many things we ignore at our peril.

We know that Gov. Walker is not really interested in improving public education because Gov. Walker also opposed the Common Core standards, a movement at least in the right direction.

Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider argues that the benefit of reducing the public school population through “school choice” is that it saves districts and governments money to invest in . . . “priorities”:

“Of course, state and local governments then have the freedom to use those savings to address their priorities. Often, that will be pumping more money into school districts to pay teachers more. It could be used for fire and police service or to cut taxes. Either way, the more students who are educated at a fraction of the cost of public school students, the better off everyone is. That especially includes the low-income children who are given the chance to receive a top-flight education of their parents’ choosing.”

Pay public school teachers more? (If any public school teachers have gotten a raise lately, please let me know.) Schneider can be so droll. Would he be willing to write a column advocating increasing teacher pay?  And how much will the private schools pay to attract “top-flight” teachers?

Wisconsin teacher salaries have long lagged private sector wages, a fact that generous benefits somewhat offset, until Act 10 took those great benefits and most collective bargaining for teachers off the table. Though the United States spends a lot of money per student, not enough of it goes to teachers. Of course, if Wisconsin (and the nation) really valued education and abhorred ignorance, teachers at all levels, public and private, would be some of the highest paid and best educated employees. I mean teachers, not the growing number of administrators and university-employed “researchers“, some of whom are already well-paid to “collaborate” with corporations not in a search of knowledge and truth to benefit the public but for private profit.

So we don’t invest in teachers, we don’t invest in ending poverty, we don’t invest much in arts and culture,  but we expect (rather ignorantly) that our schools should do a better job of education.  As professor Peter Edelman of Georgetown University explains about ending poverty  in a NY Times op-ed:

“We know what we need to do — make the rich pay their fair share of running the country, raise the minimum wage, provide health care and a decent safety net, and the like.”

Ending or at least greatly reducing poverty would do a lot to improve our schools. But beyond economics, we know what we need to do to reform education, and it’s not what the state’s Republicans have done. Surely it’s time in Wisconsin to end this public experiment with government-sponsored ignorance. We can relieve some of our own misery by not falling for the goofy, self-serving arguments of anti-intellectual wealth and taxing it appropriately. Even Benjamin Franklin was not immune from some uncharitable stupidity:  “I observed…that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.” This was the same argument the English used to rationalize not helping the Irish when the potato crop failed.

To reform our public schools, we will have to first reform our state government.


Postscript: Speaking of anti-intellectual greed, see this report on how one businessman profits from his charter schools.