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August 22, 2014 • 11:42 am

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Education Reform Awakens the Silent Majority Print
By Troy Senik
Thursday, October 29 2009
For too long, the special interests that control public education have acted as if the welfare of teachers – regardless of ability – was the paramount interest of government’s role in the school system. But this new generation of reformers has discovered a blissfully simple principle for reform – schools exist solely to serve the interests of students.

In 1965, a young economist named Mancur Olson published a book that revolutionized the study of interest group politics. In “The Logic of Collective Action,” Olson turned the conventional wisdom about the economics of political power on its head. 
 
Up until that point, the foremost anxiety of good government devotees had been that the unchecked influence of large lobbies would yield a government kowtowing to a few colossal interests.  Since the “tyranny of the majority” had been an American apprehension since the days of James Madison (himself a formidable scholar on the efforts of political factions), this was conventional wisdom of a rather regal lineage. 
 
But Olson’s key insight was that scale has its disadvantages in political life.  With the costs of coordination increasing – and the commensurate benefits decreasing – as associations grow larger, he realized that bloated interests tend to be unwieldy when it comes to lobbying.   The greater threat, he realized, was small organizations concentrating public benefits in their own hands while dispersing costs throughout society so marginally (and obliquely) that the broader public would be blind to the pilfering of the national purse.
 
For conservatives who lament the inexorable growth of government, Olson’s formulation is an essential insight.  The nation’s farmers may be a small (and shrinking) percentage of the voting public, but their benefits from agricultural subsidies are far greater (and more transparent) than the costs borne by taxpayers. Similarly, the special interests that live off of earmarks have a much more tangible interest in continuing the practice than the reformers who seek to end it.
 
Occasionally, however, the special interest gets a bit too complacent in its rent-seeking.  For America’s teachers’ unions (or, as they rightfully deserved to be called, “education cartels”), that day may have dawned.
 
For years, the unions have resisted every measure of accountability or competition that has been proposed to alleviate the stunning decline of public schools in America.  Merit pay that rewards outstanding teachers has been dismissed lest it expose incompetent educators.  School choice has been portrayed as a stealth plan to dismantle the public school system.  Standardized testing has been criticized for failing to quantify traits such as “creativity” (a talent one imagines is in high demand when you’re illiterate and can’t do basic math).
 
The unions have gotten away with it for the reasons that Olson predicted nearly 50 years ago: teachers’ unions – at least in the short term – have more of a vested interest in preserving the status quo than parents have in demanding reform.  On top of this asymmetry, the presence of a robust market in private education has led many concerned parents to abandon the public school system altogether, leaving the ranks of public school mothers and fathers largely filled by those without the money to afford private education or those too apathetic to engage.  Add to this equation the unions’ ability to feign ethical superiority by shielding themselves behind “the children” and you have a recipe for relentless decay.
 
What the unions have missed however, is the moral calibration of the American people.  Money is one thing.  Well-read parents may resent the inverse relationship between growing public education budgets and lower performance.  But that is nothing compared to the visceral reaction inspired by seeing generations of American schoolchildren reach adulthood without even a rudimentary grasp of academic basics.  

As the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” (released by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education) unambiguously asserted, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."  In the 26 years since that report was issued, the situation has only worsened.
 
But at a moment when nearly every major public policy issue seems riven across partisan lines, substantive education reform appears to be inspiring an unorthodox, bipartisan coalition. One need only look to the newfound spirit of collaboration between former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his erstwhile opposite, the Reverend Al Sharpton.  Long polar opposites on the political spectrum, Gingrich and Sharpton have partnered with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a tour of American schools that is emphasizing the promise of charter schools, the need for greater transparency in education, and the importance of standards-based testing to measure educational performance.
 
The fact that this tour is a product of the Obama Administration should be a sign of hope in and of itself.  While Obama has stumbled at times on educational issues (such as remaining silent on the Democratic Congress’s efforts to end school choice in Washington, D.C.), he deserves credit for appointing a reform-minded Secretary of Education.  Given his otherwise reflexive liberalism, Obama should also be congratulated for his push to expand the influence of charter schools nationwide. 
 
Perhaps this single instance of genuine innovation owes to a growing rift in the Democratic Party.  While organized labor has long been a key driver of Democratic politics, the minority vote has been an equally essential part of the party’s coalition.  But on this issue, the two camps find themselves at loggerheads.  While unions bend over backwards to sing the public school system’s praises, minorities have grown tired of a bureaucracy that crushes their children’s dreams generations at a time.
 
And as President Obama breaks away from this Democratic tradition at the national level, minorities around the nation blaze bold reformist paths in school districts throughout the nation. In Washington, D.C., Korean-American Michelle Rhee is breaking the stranglehold that unions have had on the dysfunctional education system in the nation’s capital.  In Oakland, California, Lumbee Indian principal Dr. Benjamin Chavis has freed local charter schools from the politically correct shibboleths that doomed them to perpetual irrelevance.
 
For too long, the special interests that control public education have acted as if the welfare of teachers – regardless of ability – was the paramount interest of government’s role in the school system.  But this new generation of reformers has discovered a blissfully simple principle for reform – schools exist solely to serve the interests of students.  Long may this new reality endure.  

Question of the Week   
On which one of the following dates during the War of 1812 did British troops march into our nation’s capital and set fire to the city?
More Questions
Quote of the Day   
 
"These are the worst people on earth. They openly, proudly crucify enemies, enslave women and murder men en masse. These are not the usual bad guys out for land, plunder or power. These are primitive cultists who celebrate slaughter, glory in bloodlust and slit the throats of innocents as a kind of sacrament.  We have now seen what air cover for Kurdish/Iraqi boots on the ground can achieve. But…[more]
 
 
—Charles Krauthammer, Syndicated Columnist
— Charles Krauthammer, Syndicated Columnist
 
Liberty Poll   

Will the indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry hurt or help him politically?