• TL Zempel

The Trouble with Being Insular

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

I'd like to discuss the hot-button issue of school choice today. It's also known as the voucher system, because parents can send their tax dollars to the school of their choosing, much like using the money as a voucher to pay for their child's education.


Proponents like me insist that when parents have a choice not just where their child attends school but also where their tax dollars attend school, it improves education for everyone. The other side insists that if tax dollars follow children, it will dilute the quality of the programs offered by public schools because parents who are paying a lot of taxes (school taxation is generally determined by property taxes) will opt for the elite private schools only.


The problem with this theory is that it relies on insular thinking: insisting that there is a wall around any thought, ideology, institution, etc, that prohibits anything from the outside penetrating to the inside, and anything from the inside leaking out. Public schools have long relied on this philosophy to maintain their monopolistic claim to public funds.


So what is wrong with being insular? It demotes competition to the cutting room floor. There is no reason to be good at something if you know you're going to get compensated for your paltry efforts regardless of what you do. In fact, this very reality is why communism does not work. Most of us know that communism gradually and inevitably destroys personal incentive. This is what has happened in our public schools. There is no substantive incentive to be excellent because school districts know they are getting millions of dollars regardless of what they do.


Another aspect to scrutinize is just who is promoting the monopoly. Is it a cross-section of citizens? No. It's mostly those within the organization: school boards, administrators, education gurus, teachers' unions, teachers.... ALL are people who benefit from the funding. This alone should make you question the sanity of a monopoly on receiving tax funds.


Consider for a moment how the school voucher debate has been framed by those who have a stake in it. Of course school officials are going to make statements like "We're the only ones who can be relied on to make education count for your children" and "We need the funding to ensure the best education for all our students, not just some of them". But what do these generalized platitudes really mean? If all you rely on to make your decisions about how to vote is what you hear in televised snippets from those receiving the funds, then you're missing the underlying reality.


There's a reason that outside investigators are brought in when an internal issue erupts in an organization. Who can be relied on to police themselves? Almost no one, as logical people well know. It's the same with public schools and other interests who have a monopoly on a product or service. You know you're getting the funding regardless of what you do or how wasteful you are, so the only real thing you have to be concerned with is how well you can convince the public that you're doing your job.


When competition enters the picture, we begin to see substantive quality emerge. Not just speeches about how well we're doing our jobs, but actual results that show how well we're doing our jobs. And the money that pours into pet projects dries up because there's now an accounting for that money. Any money spent has to have an actual purpose, not just fall into the "discretionary fund" well of mysteriousness.


Most teachers would say that the best determinants of student performance are low class sizes and positive student engagement. The latter is edu-speak for 'no behavior problems'. On the other hand, most administrators believe that class sizes and behavior are negligible in determining how well students learn. This is because things like class size and behavior are simple to fix, and the administrators and education gurus cannot claim expert status over them. They've learned that they can, however, claim to be experts when it comes to "inventing" new ways to teach in a classroom setting.


Administrators routinely lecture teachers on the best ways to reach kids regardless of how many are packed into a classroom or how many try to ruin learning for everyone else. In fact, they say that if you are good enough at your practice of teaching, all student misbehaviors will just disappear. Those in charge currently spend thousands of dollars to indoctrinate their teaching staffs on the supposed logic of this position. Anyone who wants to either maintain his career as a teacher or advance within the ranks goes along with it. I call this The Farce of Professional Development.


Why do they do this? Because school administrators, over the last decade, have entered the realm of Ego-Run-Amok, in which everyone at the top (or aspiring to be near the top) is in a race to be the next great arbiter of all that is good in education. And receive the acclaim that goes along with that. But they are all just speech-makers. They're preaching what the choir wants to hear. And in this instance, the choir is not the teachers who have to deal with regular classroom situations; the choir is the inner circle of those in power in education. That power structure is what is destroying public education.


Funding that cannot be messed with. Demagogues who direct that funding with impunity. Minions inside the organization who absorb the message out of fear or their own ambition. Platitudes that manipulate the thinking of those outside the system. This is what it means to be insular. And this is why the monopoly on tax dollars has to stop.




T.L. Zempel, author and retired teacher
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copyright 2020 by TL Zempel