"Defund" the Schools?

If it's a good idea to completely dismantle and start over with our nation's police departments, then there is no time like the present to consider doing the same for our school systems.

Thomas Sowell’s new book, “Charter Schools and Their Enemies” came out yesterday, and something occurred to me.

The mantra for a few weeks now has been “Defund the Police” and many dozens of opinionators and talking heads and Twitter influencers have been jumping all over themselves explaining a) that “Defund the Police” doesn’t actually mean defunding the police, but a really serious - and we mean it this time - reformation of police forces around the country, and b) that this universal good feeling we’ve had over the years about police unions - whereas Republicans support them because they’re police, and Democrats support them because they’re a union - needs a thorough rethinking.

On the former, it’s obvious to anyone who has legitimately been involved in urban politics and management of a city that completely eliminating the police is simply not an option — unless someone has found that magical city with no crime and no bad feelings, and hasn’t told anyone. This sounds dismissive, of course. It doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be admired about the feeling that a social worker would be more effective in managing domestic disputes, but paint me skeptical that there still won’t be a high percentage of circumstances where the well-trained use of “de-escalating” threats of violence will be in order.

But on the second point (skepticism around police unions and their power and influence) is something that deserves more examination. All public sector unions, from my point of view, are problematic (even FDR was skeptical) because it represents a revolving door of donor money to politicians to bloated bureaucracies to more dues to donor money to politicians. This is…known.

What is not known is, beyond the corruptibility that can ensue, is whether there is a chance that better funding for police departments make us safer. We can save that conversation for another day though, and ask the same question of our school systems.

One of the fundamental problems of school budgeting is this tendency to measure success (or even adequacy) based on inputs. I once watched a school superintendent make the argument that doing more with less was, objectively, on its face, a bad thing. The same superintendent bragged that in a down economy (financial crisis in the late “oughts”), not reducing the budget and thus not adding to local unemployment was noble and proper. As if the money didn’t come from local businesses whose incomes were down and whose taxes were not being lowered to support a regime that took pride in not increasing efficiencies.

And when we say inputs, it’s not just finances, it’s number of hours in a classroom as well. “Instructional time” as a definitive thing took a little bit of a hit (in a “good” way?) in the last year as the Commonwealth decided that recess counted as instructional time, loosening up local districts to increase it to 30 minutes a day.

Back to police departments (just for a second), the example of Camden, NJ, is often used to illustrate that “eliminating” a police department can be a good thing! And it can reduce crime! They didn’t of course permanently eliminate police; they just started over from scratch, and the results have been double plus good.

Well, it turns out that we have an opportunity all over the country to do something similar to our school systems. We can root out staid and static thinking. We can hold institutions and people in charge of education accountable for outputs (as opposed to inputs). The main opportunity we have is in a few months, right here in Loudoun County, VA, one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, we’ll all have the opportunity to have parents more directly and intimately involved in their kids’ schooling, since they’ll be home three days a week.

It’s a perfect time to reset and revamp, and take a boot to the status quo. Bullying, indoctrination, mediocrity, or whatever it is that makes you crazy, now is the time to ask tough questions, and consider starting over completely. With all the angst and pain and clutching of pearls this past week about the name of a local high school mascot, it would behoove us here, and elsewhere, to ask harder questions about what we can do to re-engage in K-12 education, and in a way that will cost the taxpayers a LOT less money.

Your humble author here does not have all the answers (though he is familiar with an alternative), but we should all be interested in the questions, and the ongoing conversation around why we need to continue to be paying between $14,000 and $20,000 a year per kid (depending on whether you’re counting capital, debt service and real estate) for our children’s education. If this conversation is relevant for police departments where the safety of the community is at stake, then it’s relevant for our schools, where almost 100,000 kids spend 35+ hours a week every week for 13 years of their lives.

And if Thomas Sowell’s book has any merit — and at 90 years old, it’s evident that he is as relevant as ever — then simply based on the way that the charter schools in New York City have been so effective at closing the “achievement gap” between children of color and their white counterparts should have the Black Lives Matter crowd scrambling to support something like skepticism towards the status quo as well.

Here’s me waiting for that update from the movement: