The Next Great Taxpayer Raid

by Patrick J. Buchanan – September 1991

In erecting America’s gargantuan welfare state, its architects and enthusiasts followed a familiar and perfected pattern.

First, a gaping social wound would be discovered – poor black folks suddenly without quality food in some county in Mississippi. Via tv, the “crisis” was nationalized, and the nation shamed: “In a country as rich as ours, it is criminal that poor children go hungry!” Tongue-tied Republicans would consent to a “bold new program.”

But, nothing was temporary about it. No reformer argued, as FDR once did, that welfare was “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” that, when the crisis passed, government must go. The hidden agenda was always to build a permanent welfare state, to effect an endless transfer of wealth from a private sector “driven by greed” to a public sector which knew better how to spend America’s “precious but limited resources,” i.e., our money.

And, so, we built The Great Society, the most ruinous social experiment since The War Between the States – but more enduring. What finally broke the Left’s winning formula was the 1970s tax revolt of Middle America, and the rise of a conservatism of ideas.

However, with Reaganism now giving way to a kinder, gentler (Let’s split the difference.”) Republicanism, the Left is making a new run at power. The newest demand, to be made in the hallowed name of “fairness,” will be a cry to equalize spending between suburban public schools, where they may spend as much as $10,000 per child, and urban schools where they sometimes spend only half of that.

As socialist Michael Harrington was the prophet of LBJ’s War on Poverty, Jonathan Kozol aspires to be the guru of the new movement. The title of his new book, Savage Inequalities, carries just the right note of rage and indignation, and is winning anticipated raves in predictable quarters. Publishers Weekly converted its front page (first time in 129 years) into an open letter to President Bush.

“Clearly,” PW writes, “something must be done about American education, but too often those who work to reform it do so through notions of “choice” and “competition,” market terms that have no place in a debate on the needs of our poor children. In the end, there is no doubt that we will have to spend money, and a lot of it, to bring genuine equality to our schools.”

Kozol’s case: Inequalities among public schools are due to unequal expenditures. If we abolish the property tax (root of the inequality), and compensate by raising income taxes, the state and federal governments can equalize spending. Do not take money from wealthy schools, says Kozol; rather, pour money into poor schools until they reach the same spending level. Is that not fair?

Sprinkling his text with examples like New High, north of Chicago, spending $8800 per student, versus Chicago, $5200, Kozol’s big pitch is the argumentum ad misericardiam, or argument to pity. A sad little fourth-grade black girl in East St. Louis is quoted, “I live here, they live there, and they don’t want me in their school.”

Sorry, but 30 years of reading this stuff, then buying the snake oil that came with it, makes you a little cynical…

Let’s get past Jonathan’s blubbering, and get back to basics.

In Fairfax County, VA, where some of the top-ranked schools in the U.S. are located, they spend $6700 per student. Across the river, they spend $7000; yet, D.C. test scores are in the sub-basement. To borrow from Tina Turner, “What’s money got to do with it?”

In Washington, parochial schools that spend half as much per child as public schools turn out students who perform two, three and four grades higher. But, retorts Kozol, Catholic schools are able to choose and discipline students and expel troublemakers.

Well, perhaps, the answer is for public schools to adopt the formula that works in parochial schools. Rather than funnel new dollars into failed schools, take the children out by giving vouchers to their parents to go shopping for a better school. If the Supreme Court Justices don’t approve, then get some new justices.

To equalize expenditures among all public schools would entail a transfer of scores of billions of dollars from taxpayers to a public school system that ought to be reformed or jettisoned, not enriched.

Look at our own history. The little red schoolhouse worked. Catholic schools worked. Public schools in New York where Irish immigrant girls taught immigrant kids who spoke Yiddish worked. Today, schools that spend 20 times per capita what these schools did, fail. Money is not the big problem, though it is the big agenda item of Jonathan Kozol and the educational banditi cheering him on.

Instead of this socialist fetish about “equality” – in a nation where no two kids are born equal in brains, ability, drive, energy, personality, verbal skill, competitive fire and home environment – we need a new American emphasis on excellence – an environment where each child receives a basic education, and the best are sought out and stretched to the limit. When we introduce into classrooms the competitive ethos we see on our athletic fields, we will win there as we win in the Olympics. Not before ‘A little less Jonathan Kozol, please, and a little more Vince Lombardi.’

Even as we separate church and state, perhaps it is time to separate education from government. Competing private schools work; too many government school monopolies fail. But if we are to defeat old socialist ideas, we will need new conservative ones. For America never stands still; she is always moving, Right or Left.