Meritocracy Is Not The Problem

Monday, September 23, 2019
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George Packer’s recent jeremiad in The Atlantic offers an object lesson on the disarray of modern progressive thought. Packer’s essay, about K-12 education in New York City, rails against two enemies: “a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism,” which, he argues, are ripping apart the social fabric of New York City. His exhaustive lament, detailing his and his wife’s desperate effort to navigate a broken system for their two children, lacks any systematic analysis of the institutional forces driving the problems he identifies. He also never questions his deep faith in an enlightened social welfare state.

He begins the essay pointing to the painful experience of parents who spent a cold February night in sleeping bags outside the school house door in order to obtain places for their children in a desirable public preschool whose slots are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Packer attributes this extreme behavior to the “organized pathologies of adults” who have surrendered to the brutal meritocracy.

But he does not ask why similar instances do not occur in school districts outside New York City. A good place to start is with the law of supply and demand. New York constrains supply of seats in charter schools by an iron set of political forces. Old private schools are hard to expand and new ones are even harder to create.  The shortage of good schools is well understood by parents who think a night in the cold is a good investment in their children’s future. There is no bidding system for existing seats. Nor is the City able to expand the supply of desirable school seats in the short run.

So the standard neoclassical economic principles yield the same outcomes in New York City as everywhere else. Queuing will result when prices are capped below market rates. There were no neurotic drivers in the United States when long lines formed at gas stations in the 1970s after gasoline prices were capped at artificially low prices in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Those dealers sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Alas, the progressive instinct, then and now, is to seek ways to allocate places in the queue on a more equitable basis, a hopeless task that a price system avoids altogether. The only sensible solution is to remove the cap on prices for both gasoline and education. These freezing New Yorkers were not neurotic—they were responding rationally to a broken system—at least until they enroll their children in private schools or flee to the city’s suburbs or the American heartland.

Once the short-term problem is identified, the next step is to look for structural solutions. But in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio—like other mayors before him—is a fierce backer of teachers’ unions, which will do pretty much anything to block an increase in new seats within the City. These unions operate on the correct assumption that the entry of new charter schools will cause a mass exodus from the public schools, which will then weaken union power by eliminating union jobs. unions characterize any exit of captive children out of the City’s public school system as political treason. Safe jobs for often lousy union teachers in a failing school system remains the union’s top policy priority.

Sadly, the only reference that Packer makes to unions is to a strike by union bus drivers that disrupted the lives of parents and children at his son’s public school. It is a familiar story. It is possible to stockpile cars during a union strike of automakers. But there is no way to stockpile transportation services, so the bus strike hit with immediate fury. Packer observes that school administrators tried to “rally families behind the bus drivers’ union,” but he never denounced those administrators for their blatant breach of trust, a duty which the City owes to its students, not its union employees.

I doubt Packer’s ingrained progressivism would let him support the major policy and legal reforms necessary to counteract these manifold short-term dislocations and long-term failures. Instead of recognizing unions for teachers or bus drivers, the City should offer competitive wages to teachers—teachers who do and should have the option to work at charter schools, private schools, religious schools, or suburban schools. These competitive market forces would become even stronger if New York took the long overdue reform measure of breaking its unwieldy system of 1,135,000 students (of which only a tenth are in charter schools) into smaller educational systems that would face fewer diseconomies of scale. Of course, the teachers’ unions will fight this initiative to the death, because it will cut down their bargaining leverage if they have to negotiate with several independent systems instead of one gigantic one.

Teachers’ unions know all too well that it is exceedingly difficult to organize charter school systems, like New York City’s Success Academy, which are far more nimble in dealing with teachers, parents, and students than existing public school systems.

Today, the composition of the New York City public school system is about 40.5 percent Hispanic, 26 percent black, 16 percent Asian, and 15 percent white. These population patterns, coupled with parental resistance, make it impossible to achieve the elusive goal of full integration. As Packer demonstrates, the effort to restrict where parents can send their children already induces an exodus from the system which only exacerbates the problem. The critical choice for a school system is whether to concentrate on some version of racial equality across the system, or to seek excellence for students wherever they are. Charter school systems like Success Academy stress excellence and ignore equality. They do not succumb to the view that minority students can only learn in a racially balanced classroom taught by racially sensitive teachers. They demand excellence from their students and give them the love, discipline, and curriculum that allows them to achieve success.

A recent Manhattan Institute study shows the difference. Charter school enrollments in New York City are 80-percent low-income and 91-percent African-American or Hispanic. “In math,” the report states, “the proficiency rate for black students in New York City charters is 34.1 percentage points higher than that of black students in all other public schools in the state; in ELA [English Language Arts], the former enjoy a 26.4-percentage-point advantage. Meanwhile, Hispanic students in New York City charters outperformed Hispanic students in all other public schools in the state by 20.7 percentage points in ELA and by 26.8 percentage points in math.”

But Richard Carranza, de Blasio’s school chancellor, champions diversity above all else. Carranza creates a grievance industry that, as Packer relates, commits millions of dollars to “anti-bias” training for teachers without worrying about whether those same teachers possess basic subject matter competence. As Packer notes, Carranza is so obsessed with his grotesque sense of social injustice that his anti-bias initiative is just a smokescreen for his own effort to trash traditional educational norms by invoking the overused mantra of “White Supremacy Culture” to savage such values as “Perfectionism,” “Individualism,” “Objectivity,” and “Worship of the Written Word”—the fundamental skills that help people achieve success in an information economy. To those parents who protest against the politicization of their children’s curriculum, Carranza has one purpose response—his critics are racists who will not deter him from his appointed task.

In addition to combating “White Supremacy Culture,” progressive forces within NYC have worked overtime to implement such anti-patriarchal efforts as making most every bathroom between kindergarten and fifth grade gender-neutral. This progressive initiative starts from the dangerous assumption that all established norms about the relationship between the sexes were only ever crude contrivances designed to ensure a vicious form of subordination of girls and women—an assumption that, if true, would very well justify the severe changes highlighted above for the purpose of stamping out ingrained misogyny. Unfortunately, this system turned into an abject failure as rambunctious bullies made life intolerable for girls and other boys alike, resulting in a swift, if controversial, return to largely sex-specific facilities.

There are two lessons to learn from this fiasco. First, that customs are often supported by good reasons, even if their defenders are not fully able to articulate them. Second, decentralized systems are much more resistant to totalitarian abuses than centralized ones.

Packer is well aware of the dangers of dystopian progressivism, but he falls prey to some of Carranza’s excesses when he concludes: “The legacy of racism, together with a false meritocracy in America today that keeps children trapped where they are, is the root cause of the inequalities in the city’s schools.” No, no, no. Stop worrying about the legacies of the past and start educating children for the future. And above all, remember that it is a set of incurable structural flaws, not some form of false meritocracy, that locks too many innocent school children of all races and from all backgrounds into New York City’s oft-maligned public school system.


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