Checking Privilege is Bad Politics

Recently I described the political advantage of choice over top-down reforms.  Choice creates its own constituency to protect and expand it because people will fight to keep choice once they have it.  Top-down reforms, by contrast,  are the most popular on the day they are adopted and decline after that, leaving them vulnerable to being blocked, diluted, co-opted, or repealed.  Who will protect and expand a system that imposes consequences for test performance?  The people who are punished by it know who they are and are well organized.  The beneficiaries (if any) are dispersed and disinterested.  Where is the “test our kids more rally” being held?  Nowhere.

It’s a basic political science insight that many well-financed education reformers somehow lack — concentrated and organized interested tend to prevail over dispersed and unorganized interests.  Choice is consistent with this basic lesson while top-down reform runs contrary to it.

An important corollary of this basic lesson is that people with more money tend to be better organized and effective at protecting their interests than poor people.  So, designing a program to stick it to wealthy people is generally a bad idea.  If you are pushing for the expansion of choice, don’t exclude wealthy people.  A s the old saying goes, “Programs targeted for the poor tend to be poor programs.”  If wealthy people are included among those who can benefit from a choice program, they can organize to protect and expand that program.  If a choice program only offers benefits to the most disadvantaged, those beneficiaries are not well-positioned to fight for it politically.  You need to include more advantaged people as beneficiaries so they can fight for a program that also benefits the poor.

If you need an example of the political logic of how universal programs are actually more effective at helping the poor than targeted programs, just compare Social Security and WIC.  Social Security is generous, paying recipients much more on average than they paid in.  It pays cash which recipients can use in any way they want.  It comes automatically; you don’t have to wait in a long line in a dank office to apply to a surly bureaucrat to get it.  It is also indexed to inflation, so it never loses value over time. And — most importantly — it is extremely effective at alleviating poverty among seniors.

WIC, on the other hand, provides meager food assistance to low income families.  It can only be used for certain foods and not other things that poor families might want.  This jerk with a blog in the New York Times is actually outraged that WIC might change its rules to allow poor families to buy white potatoes:

I have nothing against potatoes, either. But there’s almost no one in America, WIC recipients included, who isn’t getting enough potatoes. And that’s what the Institute of Medicine (I.O.M.) was thinking when it excluded potatoes from the WIC program. Because everyone knows that in the United States, “potatoes” equals “fries.”

And if it isn’t degrading enough to be told what to eat by Mr. Bossy Pants in the New York Times, you have to wait in long  lines and engage in endless self-disclosure in forms before you can get WIC assistance at all.

Because Social Security is universal in its benefits — the checks go to the rich and poor alike — the program is politically very well protected, long enduring, and provides fantastic benefits.  Because it targets the poor, programs like WIC are always politically vulnerable, are constantly being replaced (remember AFDC?), and provide lousy benefits.  If you don’t want your education reform to look like WIC, don’t exclusively target the poor.

Even when choice programs target their benefits to the poor, they usually have the good sense not to take something away from the rich.  Rich suburbanites are no worse off if poor kids in Milwaukee have some extra choice.  Of course, the program would be less politically vulnerable, provide more generous benefits, and would be even larger if it also offered benefits to people with more money.

But top-down reforms often take something important away from wealthy families — control over their child’s education.  When a wealthy suburban mom wants her child taught standard algorithms for math in 2nd grade, she doesn’t want to be told that Common Core requires that those algorithms not be introduced until 4th grade.   Even if Common Core actually requires no such thing, the fact that the local district tells her that there is nothing that she or they can do about it, makes that mom feel like she has no control and no recourse.  At least if she were told something like this in the past, she would know which school board member to call or which state legislator to mobilize in her defense.  But to whom does she complain to change what is required by Common Core (or what is alleged to be required by Common Core — whether it really is or not makes no difference)?

Wealthy moms also tend not to like their child being given a bunch of dumb tests and told (again, perhaps wrongly) by their school that they can’t learn more interesting and diverse material because test-based reforms require it.  They especially get annoyed when they believe that their child could pass the test regardless of what is taught.  So they see virtually no benefit from test-based reforms and see significant impingement on control over their child’s education.

It does no good for defenders of top-down reforms to complain about “white suburban moms” as Education Secretary Arne Duncan did.  You can’t guilt wealthy folks out of wanting to protect what they believe is in the best interests of their children.  And it may feel good to self-absorbed reformers to declare that they are pushing top-down reforms to check white privilege, but it is lousy politics.  If your goal is to actually do something to help poor people rather than feeling righteous about sticking it to the wealthy, avoid top-down reforms and push universal choice instead.

-Jay P. Greene

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