On Education (and the “Previous”)

One of the problems we run into when debating politics is that we get trapped in habit, in patterns of thought. This makes every party to the discussion inflexible, every conversation repetitive, and no solution possible.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say that a federal law is passed nationalizing primary schools in order to raise the standards of the educational system. One part of this mandates that 12% of every municipal budget gets spent on education. Studies were done; experts were consulted; years were spent on the project — and a 12% average was determined to be the fair number. The law goes into effect.

The state of Maryland is suddenly in a pickle: There are only 19 towns or cities in the whole state, and most of them (aside from Baltimore) are pretty small. Maryland government is largely done on a county level, and Montgomery County’s school budget is larger than the annual expenditures of a small nation. The state appeals to the federal government in the strongest terms, but is told, “It’s the law; you sort it out.”

Chicago’s public school budget is $6 billion annually, and the city’s entire expenditures are just over $12 billion, $2 billion of which it used to send to schools. Some of the funding comes from the state, some from the federal coffers. Under the new program, even with all the assistance the state can afford, there’s going to be a billion dollar shortfall — but the city now has an extra billion that it’s legally forbidden to contribute. (The aldermen pocket it quietly, of course.)

Greenbush, Maine has a population of about 1400 people. The only school is K-through-5th, and the town doesn’t pay for any of it. Instead, all the money comes from the state, because the town has a hard enough time keeping the roads plowed in the winter and has no municipal payroll. Under the new federal rules, the town is forced to choose between setting a 40% property tax or dissolving its town charter.

Obviously, the federal level is not the appropriate one for making this sort of decision. School budgets are best set at the lowest level of government practicable, whereas funding should be allocated flexibly. Yes, national standards for education ought to exist, but they should be limited to matters best decided nationally. One school of thought common among teachers holds that all education ought to be federalized yet funded locally; every state in the Union plus Washington D.C. have all strenuously objected, because their business is budgets and they know better.

But we’re not here to discuss education, though the example is a serious one and the law is one that almost passed the House some years back. Instead, let’s talk about the propriety of local government versus national.

A few things are the province of national laws: wars, for example; export duties; matters of international diplomacy. Some are decided by regional councils, such as fisheries quotas — states without coastlines aren’t often consulted in regard to lobsters and crabs. Quite a few are worked out on a state, county, parish, township, or municipal level. Sudden changes to the status quo always cause problems, some of which last for decades before they get resolved.

Recently, SCOTUS has ruled that abortion is not a federal but a state issue. This means that California residents can’t choose for people in Utah, and Texas can’t decide for New York — which, if you’ve ever compared a Texas cowboy and a Manhattanite, only makes plain sense. But what about those citizens of Illinois who live in a state dominated by Chicago? Why should Manhattan make the choice for Buffalo, just because a lot more people live there? And, from another perspective: Since abortion is for women only, what moral grounds are there for men to even have a vote?

Today’s political rhetoric would have it that the Roe reversal is a threat to freedom and democracy — but it’s entirely democratic. It simply places the burden of the decision on a different, yet equally democratic, legislature. A lot of Rhode Islanders are upset that they can’t control what’s done in Georgia; so what?!

The moral problem, however, is this: At any level, the decision is imposed by a majority without recourse to the opinions of the minority. When the subject of that decision is personal, what right does any majority have to weigh in at all? In short, why is the government even involved?

There are certain questions of a broad, general nature that the federal government is absolutely required to decide: What are the rights of the citizen? Who qualifies? What are the rights of any person, and who protects them? Thus, the question of the division between a mother’s rights and the child’s are entirely appropriate at the highest level — and the age of the child, or whether it has yet been born or even conceived, in no wise interferes with the general nature of the question. Fundamentally, this cannot be left to the states, because the answers are absolutes by nature; they bind all of us.

And yet, for those answers that we are unable to definitively provide in those areas where even the questions themselves are subjective — What is a soul? When does it arrive? What constitutes a person? Can a dog be a person? Can a robot? — it’s as reasonable to decide them on a local level as a national. Rather more so, in fact, for these are questions appropriate to philosophers and priests, and the moral authorities of Utah are very different from those in Oregon.

It would be absurd to pretend that I have the answers to all these questions and the myriad others that can be formulated on the subject — just as it is that you do. We can’t. There is no consensus.

Part of this is because there’s no honest discussion, which brings us around full circle to the beginning of the article. If we’re ever to achieve anything even resembling a reasonable solution, we’ll need our best minds engaged in discourse, in dispute and debate, research and contemplation.

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