Gallows humor for the new school year?

Posted: Sep 17, 2006 10:01 PM

America's public schools aren't all that funny. Yet there's something Kafkaesque about their very nature — and Kafka, I'm told, is supposed to be funny.

Consider: our vast system of government-run local monopolies suffers further cartelization at state and national levels. Like something out of Kafka, it's designed to allow for little choice. It's designed to frustrate choice. You might as well beat your head against a castle wall.

What We've Learned
Some things do get learned, though.

For example, years of low- and no-choice monopoly schooling have taught a majority of America's parents one lesson: not to complain much. They've learned the tacit message from America's teachers and school administrators: Mind your own business. Your children's education is our business, not yours. OK, K.?

Of course, a vocal minority of parents, of all races and ethnicities, do demand better.

Trouble is, politicians, backed by teachers' unions and state bureaucracies, don't want to give it to them. See what happened in South Carolina last year with Governor Sanford's universal tax credit proposal. The legislature wouldn't go along.

But not all legislatures are equally set against school choice. Consider the lesson of Florida.

Back in 1999, a "half-blown" voucher system found its way into law. It offered some choice to students in the worst schools. I say "half blown" because it was so timid, so far from being a "full-blown" choice-in-education plan. Only a small segment of the state's students were affected. How many? In the system's last year of operation, so few students qualified that only 700 or so took up the state on its offer to opt out with vouchers.

Unfortunately, any chipping away at the government-run monolith is not to be tolerated, so the monopoly system found a savior, a teacher indoctrinated enough (or merely self-interested enough) to sue.

And last January the lawsuit won. Florida's little experiment in vouchers is over.

What were they thinking? Well, the judges chose limited choice not for the reasons you might think.

For years American proponents of school choice struggled with competing interpretations of the First Amendment. The establishment clause could be construed to prohibit the granting to students and parents money that could be spent on religious schools. Separation of church and state, you see.

After years of debate, in 2002 the Rehnquist court, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, wisely settled the matter. The court saw that with school vouchers there was no establishment of any one denomination over another, or any religion over any other — or none — since the monies were distributed entirely through the choices of citizens. Citizens could change their mind, and it was their choices that directed where the money went. No problem. Case, as they say, closed.

The Florida case wasn't about the First Amendment, though. The case was decided, instead, on state grounds, on the state's constitution.

Unfortunately, Florida's constitution sucks.

Now that I've lowered the language of the debate to a level understandable to nearly all of today's students, let me explain: Florida's constitution itself specifies the means by which public education is to be run, down to how school districts are formed and what the role of school boards should be.

The U.S. Constitution does not mention education. The Florida Constitution nearly micromanages it.

Though on the federal level proponents of monopoly education demand the broadest, loosest reading of the Constitution — they have to, since a strict reading would preclude the government from getting involved in an issue not empowered by the document itself — in Florida the monopolists demanded a strict reading of the state document. They insisted that no state-funded student attend a school run in any way that bypassed the exact manner specified.

The old idea of a Constitution was to establish the rules of the game, and allow different game plans to be tried. The new idea, of course, is to write in stasis at the beginning, and keep the closed system going forever. (There's nothing like "stasis" for job security!)

Florida's constitutional micromanagement of public education? That's not a bug, that's a feature . . . or so says the education establishment. Frankly, to me it still looks like a bug. Not a Gregor Samsa of a bug, but a bug nevertheless.

Laughing All The Way to the Bank
Various voucher and choice-in-education plans actually exist in several locales in America. You hear surprisingly little about them in the news, however.

But then, you hear surprisingly little about the deep perversities of the dominant monopoly system, either. For example, had John Stossel not twice aired his special Stupid in America, how many Americans would know anything about New York City's "Rubber Rooms"?

Now, thanks to Stossel, people around America are at least aware of the reductio ad absurdum of monopoly schooling. They know that some teachers get paid not to teach, but instead get housed in centers where they can goof off and collect their pay.

No hyperbole: it's so hard to fire teachers in New York City that the worst of the worst are taken away from students and housed in buildings informally called "Rubber Rooms," where they get to sit around and do nothing all day. At taxpayer expense.

Stossel related the startling truth about one Rubber Room consignee, a man who'd written explicitly sexual emails to an underage student. He confessed. And yet, still, he couldn't be fired.

In his special, Stossel showed the pages and pages of steps it takes to fire a teacher in New York. But on TV all you get to see of the document is the length of those pages, not the grisly detail.

So Stossel presented the flow chart in the October issue of Reason magazine. Buy it. Read it and weep.

Or, since it's drawn in old cartoon style, laugh.

Which brings us back to comedy. Too bad those Hollywood folk are so slow on the uptake. In a better world, we would already have had a sitcom or reality show based on the Rubber Rooms. All America could laugh at insane government and greedy, out-of-control teachers' unions.

And then, after that, maybe our schools could grow up.