To the unabashed capitalist, competition is an essential part of the formula for improving public education. It’s supposed to improve teacher and student performance and produce cost efficiencies, and even liberate children living in poverty from “multi-generational bondage to local failing education institutions.” Or so says Joe Balyeat, the director for school choice projects for Alaska’s chapter of Americans For Prosperity (AFP).
But if we truly believe that competition is vital to fixing our public education system, let’s begin by using it to discuss the many ways it’s really broken.
First let’s unmask Mr. Balyeat, who penned his support for Senate Joint Resolution 9 as a guest columnist in the Anchorage Daily News and Juneau Empire last month. He’s the Montana State Director of AFP and really a lifelong Montanan who spends some time at his second home in Anchor Point.
Now I’m not saying that creating competition between public and private schools isn’t a valid viewpoint just because Balyeat is bringing in ideas from outside. Paul Jenkins, the editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, also articulated this point of view in an ADN commentary.
The problem I have with both Balyeat and Jenkins is twofold. They are convinced that public money vouchers allowing parents to send their children to private schools will inject competition and reverse the decade-long decline of our public school system. And they belittle those who disagree with them as being afraid to debate the issue.
For instance, Jenkins calls public schools “a playground for teachers’ unions and bureaucrats whose only answer for chronic problems is cash.” That’s not the tone of a respectful debate like Gov. Sean Parnell called for in his State of the State speech. But our governor too has reduced the issue to two sides — those like him who have “focused on results” and “those who believe reform begins and ends with increased funding.”
Parnell, Jenkins and Balyeat might do well to listen to Andrew Halcro, a former Republican legislator who is currently serving as president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.
“Before you make this huge change,” he said, “we should probably stop for a minute and see exactly what the problem is.”
Halcro was recommending legislators consider the findings in a recent report titled “Enhancing Student Learning and Performance: 2013 Statewide Survey.” This was a cooperative effort by the National Education Association-Alaska, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Alaska, Alaska Parent Teachers Association and Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska’s Children. Factors considered for improving student achievement focused on community issues and the relationship between schools, parents, students and community organizations. The study deliberately avoided the contentious arenas of school funding, vouchers and teacher tenure.
The word religion doesn’t show up in the report either. That might upset state Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who is quoted in the Alaska Budget Report as referring to humanism environmentalism, and evolutionary “Darwinism” as faith-based education “in a different realm.” He could have included capitalism, which may be the least disputed “ism” of all secular philosophies in America.
As opposed to the godlessness of communism, there is a religious element in the history of capitalism. Many economists and sociologists believe free enterprise flourished on the shoulders of the Protestant work ethic; namely hard work, persistence, patience and frugality.
But midway through the Bush years in the White House, Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institute wrote, “in certain respects, capitalist consumer society worked to undermine those virtues.” In fact, almost 40 years ago, Irving Kristol complained that self-centered consumerism was a thorn stabbing at the virtues of work.
“The ability to defer gratification, which is a prerequisite for a gradual bettering of one’s condition, is scorned,” he wrote.
Look at what our love affair with capitalism has created for today’s youth — immediate social connectedness through smart phones along with on-demand streaming of music and movies over the internet. Those are just the tip of the instant gratification iceberg. There’s plenty more that interferes with the learning ability of students from kindergarten to high school in the same way it affects working class adults.
If we’re going to be serious about improving public education in Alaska, then the debate has to have more than a two-sided coin. We need to take a good look in the mirror because how we live is the model for how our children learn. And neither vouchers nor an increase to the base student allocation will change that.
• Rich Moniak is Juneau resident.