If You Can’t Save Everybody on a Sinking Ship, Don’t Try to Save Anybody

Protecting teachers’ unions over children, the US Secretary of Education rationalizes the Obama administration’s opposition to a successful school-vouchers program in our nation’s capital:

Secretary Arne Duncan said in an email through a Department of Education spokesman that while “this Administration is devoting more resources and supports more ambitious reform of our public school systems than any Administration in history,” he believes that “vouchers are not the solution to America’s educational challenges. Taking a tiny percentage of the kids out of the public school system and putting them in private schools is not the answer. We need to be more ambitious. We need to fix all of our schools.”

The disgracefully poor quality of our government-run system of primary education is the worst problem in our society. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of children from low-income families have their intellectual and productive potential stunted. Millions of other children receive crummy educations that scant basic skills while indulging politically-correct educationist fads.

Here’s an idea. Let’s take a chunk of the “stimulus” billions we’re pissing away on bailouts and make-work schemes and use it instead to buy out the teachers’ unions. Offer every teacher and union official a generous lump-sum early-retirement package, conditional on the disbandment of the unions and on a federal legislative prohibition against employee unionization in education through Grade 12. All of this would cost the taxpayers an enormous amount, but wouldn’t it be a much better use of public funds as compared to most of what we’re currently spending the money on?

31 thoughts on “If You Can’t Save Everybody on a Sinking Ship, Don’t Try to Save Anybody”

  1. Right: We can’t fix any schools until we fix all of them. Just like we can’t fix the “waste, fraud, and abuse” in Medicare until we get pretty much everybody on Medicare, or something that closely resembles it.

    It’s the Jam Tomorrow Administration. These people are not adults. They’re playing dress-up and make-believe.

  2. Obama’s position is not irrational. It’s just a sign of class war.

    A major predictor of success is presence of high-performing peers. This is true for both high-performing and low-performing students. If you allow high-performing students to go to schools with higher standards, this helps them, but not the old, low-performing peers they left behind.

    Obama truly believes it is unfair, at least with respect to education, for people to rise and fall according to their merit. In Obama’s view, this would disadvantage poorer, low-performing populations to the “unfair” advantage of richer, higher-performing populations.

  3. ““this Administration is devoting more resources and supports more ambitious reform of our public school systems than any Administration in history,”

    When you are talking FedGov and schools, that could be said of the last administration pretty easily. Interesting that this current one tops the last on ambition and resources and no-one has even noticed yet.

  4. Thomas Sowell pointed out that one of the major differences between right and left was that they disagreed over whether problem could be “solved” perfectly. People on the right generally don’t believe that perfection is possible. They view problem solving as an incremental process in which we tradeoff larger problems for smaller problems. People on the left by contrast do believe that at any point in time, practically perfect solutions are not only obvious but easy to implement if we just have the will to do so. They view negative tradeoffs as completely unnecessary and incremental improvements as simply the result of timidity or moral failing.

    In that kind of worldview any solution that does fix everything for everybody is a waste of time and unjust. Why would we ever choose a partial improvement over the current system in favor of a perfect solution that helps everyone justly?

    Leftist will always deny they think this way but you can prove it by simply asking them to list the negative tradeoffs of their policies. In the vast majority of cases, they won’t be able to list any significant ones because they simply don’t sit down and think about problems in those terms.

  5. Unlike the sinking-ship example, the success of a voucher-based school *does* help those who are still stuck in the public schools, by providing competition and forcing the entrenched bureaucrats at the old schools to work on improvement. Just like imported cars improved quality even for those who didn’t buy imports, by putting Detroit on notice that its quality levels were no longer acceptable.

  6. Don’t make the mistake of taking at face value what Duncan, or just about anyone in govt but certainly this aadministration says.,

    Let me translate:

    “We won’t go against the NEA and AFT, they are too important to the Democratic Party and sacrificing a few minority kids is a small price to pay, and we’ll use any lame excuse to get by this question.”

    Simple, isn’t it?

  7. No, the biggest problem here and abroad lies in the rampant pro-natalism and excessive breeding.

    Pro-natalism is expressed in SCHIP, “family” policies, tax credits and the like, as well as in taxpayer subsidy of “public education.”

    Excessive breeding would be a problem even if everything were privatized and pro-natalist policies eliminated, unless breeders paid for the externalities, like doubled carbon footprint, that their breeding leads to.

  8. Jimbino,

    No, the biggest problem here and abroad lies in the rampant pro-natalism and excessive breeding.

    Not the mention the problem of “non-breeders” being economic free-riders on the backs of parents.

  9. People on the left by contrast do believe that at any point in time, practically perfect solutions are not only obvious but easy to implement if we just have the will to do so.

    There was a woman named Leni Riefenstahl made a movie on this very subject. I think the hero of her movie felt pretty much that way.

  10. Jimbino, to add to Shannon – do you have kids? And if you do, are you insane?


    Then why are all the rich yuppies I work with in NYC only having one kid? It’s not just career-driven selfishness. It costs too damn much to have more than one in the NY metro area. And in many others, it costs too much to have more than 2. The replacement number, by the way, is 2.1.

    Even with what subsidies there are, it costs a metric sh&t-ton more to raise kids right than what the government gives in tax breaks, or “free” education – and with what society gets out of educated, middle-class kids in the way of production, it more than makes up for the minor investment.

    I pay for extras on everything from athletics to language and music lessons, to DIY science, and the PTA fundraising makes up for shortfalls of all kinds in academics – because what the public schools do, even in my very high test scoring area, is a disgraceful minimum.

    On top of the direct costs, my wife and I decided that this was the most important thing we were going to do with our lives and decided to have her not work, taking yet another financial hit my unmarried, childless contemporaries don’t take. A lot of other people do that, too, at least for the younger years. It pays off – a kid whose parents do not supplement the school curriculum is never going to be at the top of the heap in education – or anything else in life – given how poor the system is. The Chinese and Indian immigrants around here run their own Saturday schools, and they don’t jut teach Hindi and Mandarin, they teach math and science, too. And they pay for it. Out of their own pockets. Unless you have kids, you don’t have a clue what a good upbringing costs.

    If your Social Security check depended solely on the productivity of what you pay for in public education taxes, you’d be eating cat food in your golden years. Your retirement will be highly subsidized versus what you paid for the educations of the workers who are supporting your sorry butt – subsidized by parents who take advantage of every “pro-natalist” break they can get and still come up short.

    I take on the extra burdens because I love my kids, but freeloaders without kids will reap the benefits, too. I resent how much of this damn stimulus is going to the greedy geezers and adding to the debt my kids will have to pay off.

    With the high costs of raising a kid right, the only people who have a mess of them (aside from some Hassids and Catholics who take the huge financial hit on religious grounds) are the lower-class who don’t give a rip how their kids turn out. I know I really should have had 3 kids in order to do my societal duty, but I spent too long in grad school and came to the full realization of my value as a reproductive unit too late in life to have three and do right by the third. Mea Culpa.

    The trend is for the most productive in our society to have the fewest kids. Overall, this is going to have a sharply negative impact on the gene pool in the long term (100 – 200 years) – the exact opposite effect Sanger envisioned for birth control. I’m a product of Appalachia, I know what I’m talking about. The jagoffs I grew up with who are now feeding their kids Mountain Dew from a bottle back in the hollers are having two to three times more kids than I did. That’s going to bite our society right in the gluteus maximus, genetically.

    It’s also going to focus the financial burden on a smaller and smaller productive workforce in coming years, and woe betide the childless if those people decide to sh&tcan Social Security and other Ponzi schemes and just take care of their own.

  11. Jonathan: I think you are optimistic on the number of dollars necessary to execute your plan. Further, why should we have to buy them out. Work rules and unions are not a species of property, or they shouldn’t be. I say ban the unions and get rid of tenure, and tell the whiners to pound sand.

  12. Many years ago, the archbishop of New York made an offer to take on the bottom 10 schools in NYC for 5 years, keep all the kids, and use the exact same amount of money. He claimed that it wouldn’t take them more than that to turn those schools around. This was in a debate with the president of the AFT. Funny, nobody’s ever taken the Church up on that offer.

    The problem isn’t that there aren’t organizations who couldn’t save all these kids, giving them a much better education. There are. The problem is that the incumbent administrations don’t want to step up and have an open and fair competition so that all children can get the best education possible. The DC voucher program has limited slots because the Democrat party did their best to limit the slots. The GOP would be happy to have universal vouchers and save everybody.

    Obama’s reprising the infamous story of the kid who kills his parents and asks for mercy from the judge because he’s an orphan. He wants the vouchers limited, and then pretend that the limits were done by somebody else, not his own party.

  13. Robert, if it were politically feasible to ban them, we would have no problem, because interest-group politics wouldn’t prevail. My proposal gives the unionized teachers an incentive to stop holding the rest of us hostage. I’m sure there are other ways to do it; a buyout was merely the first idea that came to mind. As to expense, yes, it would be expensive. OTOH, the current situation is also expensive, IMO much more so. It’s just that currently the costs are distributed while the benefits are concentrated on an organized group. Sometimes a buyout is the least-bad way to break an interest-group stranglehold on govt policy. (Of course buyouts have their own problems, such as moral hazard caused by encouraging other interest groups to try to get bought out. But that is another issue.)

  14. Here is an interesting study that shows the effect of administration costs.

    For example, in 1987, while there were 3,300 employees in the central and district offices of the Chicago public school system, a mere 36 administrators oversaw the schools of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, although its student population is 40 percent of that of the public schools and it serves a much larger geographical area.(12) In the nation’s largest school district, New York City, John Chubb of the Brookings Institution found an even more striking contrast: 6,000 administrators in the government schools and only 25 in the Catholic schools, although the Catholic schools served about one-fourth the number of students the government schools did.(13) Evidence on that point continues to mount; just recently, the Baltimore Sun reported that the Baltimore Archdiocese manages 34,000 students in 101 schools with 7 administrators, while the nearby Harford County public schools need 64 administrators to oversee 36,000 students in 51 schools.(14)

    I’ve seen similar figures on LA schools.

    My former high school, Leo High School, whose own web site is down for revision, is doing a good job with lower middle class black students. The white alumni have been helping but the last reunion I attended (my 50th in 2006) had a number of tables of black alumni who seem to be picking up the slack as my generation fades away. One of my classmates paid for a new roof about 10 years ago, a donation of $ 500,000.

  15. In answer to Shannon: yes, it can be said that everyone in society stands to benefit from a genetically superior kid reared well by his parents. That, of course, would be the exception in this country.

    Furthermore, our need for smart, young workers can no doubt be better served, in many cases, by importing them, already potty-trained, from Mexico and elsewhere than to spend millions dumbing down our domestic brood for 13 years in Amerikan public schools. No smart cabinetmaker or horse-breeder would confine himself to domestic products, of course. Half of our best inventions of the last century came from Germany, Estonia or Finland! And it needs to be considered that what Amerika seems to need, if not actively encourage, is kids “educated” to be hard-working and subservient, not intelligent and enterprising, as the latter have too much sense than to spend their youth contributing to Social Security, Medicare and the Obamacare of the sick masses.

    In answer to John Jay: Do you really feel the need to start off with an ad hominem (maybe tu quoque?) insinuation?

    Yes, you are right: Amerikan kids are not worth anywhere near what they cost society or even their parents, and especially not with all the government subsidies. If they were Walmart products, they would forced off the shelves by common sense and lawsuits.

    Yes, you and your wife no doubt don’t mind enhancing your private pleasure with no regard for the externalities you force on others by your unexamined breeding. Just wait until your wife is properly taxed for doubling or tripling her carbon footprint by breeding!

    Your most telling statement is your recognition that “The Chinese and Indian immigrants around here run their own Saturday schools, and they don’t jut teach Hindi and Mandarin, they teach math and science, too. And they pay for it. Out of their own pockets.”

    You state that “Unless you have kids, you don’t have a clue what a good upbringing costs” and I submit that I understand better than most parents what it costs to breed and bring a child to taxpaying age better than all but a few parents do.

    Yeah right: What really improves my life and prospects for peace and liberty in the world is to support all the Hassid and Catholic breeding. HaHa.

    I agree with Walmart: if you have a good, proven product to sell that the Amerikan people will pay good money to buy, bring it on. Walmart does not say: here’s billions in breeding money and we’ll take whatever Merde you and the others turn out!

    We, the childfree, can damn well buy whatever products and services we really need, including personal services, on the world market. We don’t think we need to subsidize helter skelter Amerikan breeding. The Japanese wouldn’t have a problem either, if they weren’t so racist and anti-immigrant. Here in Texas, whatever service I need, including childcare, housecleaning, plumbing, roofing and electrical installation, I can get by hiring any of the many fine Mexicans and Cubans that knock on my door. Thanks for your offer, but I don’t need your expensive home-brewed kids.

  16. Jimbino,

    We, the childfree, can damn well buy whatever products and services we really need, including personal services, on the world market

    Only if (1) the people that provide those goods and services are born in the first place and (2) that somebody spends the hundreds of thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of man hours needed to train them up to the point they give you what you want. Yes, you could probably pretty cheaply hire a 15 year old from a 3rd world slum to perform brain surgery on you but I doubt you would like the results.

    Your problem is that you just assume that fully capable people who can fulfill your needs just economically pop into existence ex nihilo. You assume that everyone else will just keep cranking out the capable and competent adults you need even if they physically incapable of doing so. You think you can get a free ride on all those people forever.

    Well, you can’t. Eventually, people like John Jay simply can’t physically do anymore. The economy simply won’t provide resources today for a project that will produce a diffuse return 18+ years down the road.

  17. The above comment by jimbino is surely one of the most narcissistic and upside-down pieces of illogic it has ever been my misfortune to come across.

    Since we’re being blunt, though, let’s be blunt. People without any interest in producing another generation to carry on their own family name, and assuming the various burdens that decision entails, are dead ends, in every meaning of that phrase.

    They contribute nothing to the future continuity and progress of the culture other than the modest contribution they make through taxes, and about which they whine continuously because they could obviously use that money for another vacation, or a fancier car.

    The childless are drones. They have no personal stake in the future, neither genetic or emotional. Their ideas about any number of public policies, esp something like education, are valueless, as their only concern is their own current lifestyle and personal interests.

    Those who spend all their time pursuing their own desires and interests, with no connection or emotional stake in the future of the species, are worse than free loaders. They will attempt, in every instance, to demonize the marvelous experience of raising a family, while exalting the meaningless triviality of their own sterile existence as some form of superior, enlightened way of life.

    There are almost 75 million youngsters in the “boom echo” generation, many more than most demographers expected. The only reason that drones, or anti-natalists, like jimbino can have any expectation of a secure life in old age is the simple fact that many of those children will grow up to be productive, innovative adults who can provide the wealth and skills to support an aging, unproductive, familyless group of people who have no claim on their generosity and wealth other than the younger generations’ own compassion and sympathy for people so foolish and misguided that they would fail to live for anything but their own day to day self-gratification.

    It is not my children and grandchildren who will be the burden on their fellows, drone, but people like you who have abandoned the future for the sake of your endless naval-gazing.

  18. I review the workers comp claims of those Mexicans he is so enthusiastic about. Most of them are illiterate in Spanish, claim second grade education in Mexico and are on disability by age 40, male and female. They are getting better at it, by the way. I reviewed one today of a fellow who was hit in the forehead by a piece of metal at age 34, which caused a small laceration. He is now totally disabled with fibromyalgia, a mysterious malady with total body pain and no objective findings. Maybe I should give him Jimbino’s address. I’m afraid that dodge will not last much longer.

  19. Our educational system is becoming infected with politically correct nonsense and multicultural propaganda imposed by the government. I first noticed this somewhere around 4th or 5th grade when every photo of a group of kids in my science textbook had an Asian, Hispanic, Arab, White and Black. John, Larry, Joe, and Jake were replaced with Carlos, Su Kim, Alfonso, and Muhammad. Likewise, in literature textbooks, curriculum is jam packed full of minority tales of woe. Now, I have nothing at all against minorities of any kind. But the extent and preachiness of the multicultural, tolerance driven political correctness in primary academia disgusting to me.


  20. Veryretired has a quaint idea that drones like Jesus, Paul and a long series of popes had no stake in the future.

  21. Imbino,

    You first, okay?

    Robert Schwartz…ditto

    But the issue may be moot. The network effect will soon be too demonstrably effective to continually shove under the carpet, or misrepresent, or obfuscate by everyone involved.

    Mini, home-schooling enclaves and distance-learning networks with hi-speed, real-time intervention by teams of top quality instructors already work, excepting where regulation of standards adheres. Kids’d be safer too.

  22. Johnaton,

    If the educational establishment is as you say guilty of holding us hostage through their rent-seeking activities, then it would be immoral to “buy” them out. That’s paying tribute to evil, no?

    Threatening them with being fired, with loss of all pension benefits is the moral thing to do, and probably would yield the most positive results, in the shortest timeframe. For the children, right?

    Free enterprise does not subsidize Luddites, because it’s detrimental to the gene pool.

  23. Religious leaders of the type jimbino so cleverly refers to have no interest in the future of the human race on Earth—their interest is in the kingdom of heaven.

    Jimbino is just as flippant and clueless in that comment as his earlier one. When you don’t understand something, the best choice is to keep quiet and not advertise your ignorance.

  24. Veryretired,

    You must know that Paul, the inventor of Christianity, did comment on the virtues of not contaminating your life with a family.

    For those not as smart as Veryretired, here is what Paul says in Holy Scripture:

    1 Corinthians 7

    1Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.

    7For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.

    8I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I.

    9But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

    32But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord:

    33But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.

    37Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well.

    38So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.

    40But she is happier if she so abide, after my judgment: and I think also that I have the Spirit of God.

  25. jimbino—this will be my last comment about you or anything you come with in the future as it appears you are impervious to even the most obvious of facts.

    One, what gives you the idea that my view on life in general, or this question in particular, is somehow determined by what is said by Paul in the NT? He was a fanatic as a jew, and an even worse fanatic as an exuberently dogmatic convert to christianity.

    two, to repeat, the goal of Paul and the others you cite, esp. Jesus, was not the continuation of human life on earth, and earthly happiness and success, but the imminent coming of the judgement and the ascent of the saved into the kingdom of heaven.

    Repeatedly, in the gospels, and in the other writins and pronouncements by the various saints and popes down through the centuries, the focus of living has been centered on achieving eternity as a spirit being, not living here on earth, except as it results in salvation.

    There were any numbers of holy men who rejected family and women and procreation and went to some desert location to live in a cave, safe from temptation. Perhaps you should join that tradition.

    At least it would spare us any more of your pathetic attempts to join in adult conversations about real life and complex issues that concern grown up people with actual responsibilities.

  26. Veryretired,

    Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. Paul was not a “convert” to Christianity; it was he who invented it.

  27. John Jay: you said “I know I should have had 3 kids…”, and my eyes filled with tears. Apparently, this nerve is still raw. Yes, your description of costs involved in raising and educating kids is correct, but I wouldn’t stop at the one I have if it was only up to me.
    Jimbino is making the same mistake the old European countries made – Germany, with replenishing their human resource deficit with Turks, France – with Muslims from Maghreb and other Islamic countries, Holland with their former colonies, etc. Their economies, prosperity,traditional way of life and even national identity are now at stake. Even Russian premier learned on this mistake of others (well, he needs domestically-produced loyal soldiers) and started state-sponsored campaign to encourage child-bearing, not that it looks promising, results-wise. Jimbino, how do you like to be stupider than Putin?
    [JJ, talking of Putin’s campaign – I know you’ll enjoy this little masterpiece referred to here]

    In any case, to answer JJ’s question: yes, Jimbino is insane, and I’m glad he is not going to procreate. I think we, Americans with children, should thank Jimbino for his decision – for the sake of our own kids’ future.

    About teacher’s unions and their cost: 3.5 years ago I happened to do architectural work for a biggest office building in NY – 55 Water street. I was stunned learning how many floors in that 54-story building (actually, it’s two buildings with an enclosed private plaza) were given to Teacher Union’s retirement fund and even more amazed to find out that the buildings are own, partially, by that fund – the 14th largest public pension (i.e. pension for “civil servants”) fund in the world (click on “Ownership” @the left-hand menu). Apparently, teachers’ retirement fund is “one of the largest pension systems in the United States”.

    It is all our money they have invested in their “biggest public golf course”, their secure $57bln are basically ours, what we had paid them in the first place. And what did the schoolkids of NY got in return?

    Jonathan, do you think they will prefer early retirement packages to endless massive milking of this cow?

  28. Geoffgo:
    If the educational establishment is as you say guilty of holding us hostage through their rent-seeking activities, then it would be immoral to “buy” them out. That’s paying tribute to evil, no?

    I don’t agree with your conclusion. Sometimes it’s better to fight and sometimes it’s better to give the mugger your wallet. It all depends on the alternatives in the particular situation. IMO the unionized teachers are like Afghan tribal chiefs: better to bribe them if by doing so you can avoid bloodshed. It’s the lesser of evils. I think that almost anything we could do to stop the intellectual destruction of another generation of children would be worth it, assuming the remedy really worked. Head-on political attacks of the type you suggest (“Threatening them with being fired, with loss of all pension benefits…”) are not going to succeed in education any more than they would succeed with the UAW.

    Jonathan, do you think they will prefer early retirement packages to endless massive milking of this cow?

    I don’t know. My idea is lightly conceived, as I made clear. Maybe I am naive and other alternatives would work better. Thus I present my speculations for critique.

    BTW, union incompetence and outright corruption in investing union members’ retirement funds is an enormous scandal that is rarely discussed by the media. I keep thinking of the Westin Diplomat Resort (google it), which is an extreme example of what I think happens routinely. The project was very expensive at a projected $300M for 1000 rooms. Actual cost was ~$700M. What is the annualized rate of return on union members’ pension money that funded this project?

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