For about three and a half hours, last night, the RI Senate Education Committee heard testimony and had a discussion about S0607, which is the Bright Today school choice bill submitted by Senator Marc Cote (D, Woonsocket, North Smithfield). Perhaps the most interesting comments on the con side came from Senator James Sheehan (D, Narragansett, North Kingstown), and they ranged from silly to profoundly (if inadvertently) revealing.
On the silly side, for example, was a repeated theme that allowing parents to use some of the state money allocated for their children would be “taxation without representation.” It has a nice ring, coming from a legislator who is himself a U.S. history teacher in a public school in Warwick, but one would prefer that somebody who teaches U.S. history were able to draw obvious distinctions and describe things accurately, rather than in a way that furthers his own agenda (and that of the labor union to which he belongs).
Obviously, nobody is proposing that private schools should have the power to collect money from residents, with the threat of losing their homes if they don’t pay. We’re suggesting that elected officials opt to provide parents the freedom to choose the schools that their children will attend as part of the state’s strategy for providing the public good of an educated population.
I’ll lay that out for anybody whose teachers may not have understood such concepts well enough to teach them: There is broad consensus that the government has a role in ensuring that the population has a certain level of education. There’s broad consensus that all tiers of government have some role in ensuring that objective is reached. The people who ultimately make the decisions for doing so are elected officials. That’s representation.
Under Sheehan’s skewed rhetoric, any payment that government might make to a private business or an individual is “taxation without representation.” Recent research I’ve been doing provides an apropos example: Although laws governing public access to information enabled me to collect data about the use of EBT cards to withdraw cash, right down to the amounts, locations, and times of all transactions, the government won’t give me similar information when the cards are used to make direct purchases from stores. Not only does the public have no additional regulatory power over businesses that accept EBT cards for payment, but the public isn’t even permitted to know what stores those are, or how much they’re collecting.
Will Mr. Sheehan be attacking welfare programs as “taxation without representation”?
I suspect not. I also suspect he won’t be worrying much over the question of the representation of the officials who make decisions about education policy. Of the 10 members of the Senate Education Committee, four are current or former employees of public schools, including the chairwoman and vice chairman. A Jamestown school committee member who testified is herself a public school teacher. In Tiverton, three of five school committee members are current or former public school teachers, and the superintendent is a former teacher who (I’m told) was a union leader at the time.
In other words, union teachers who are empowered to take money away from the public make decisions about education policy, including binding long-term negotiations with the unions concerning how much union teachers will be paid, what sorts of benefits they’ll receive, and what their work-year will look like. I’d tend to stop at calling that a massive political problem that hurts children, but if Senator Sheehan is looking for “taxation without representation” in education, he’d do better to turn his head in that direction.
Moving to the profoundly revealing side, Sheehan also mentioned that children in his home district of North Kingstown are only provided half-day kindergarten. He raised this fact for perspective on the millions that the district sends to charter schools. If North Kingstown were not required to fund charter schools, he said, then the district could easily afford full-day kindergarten.
He offered his statements as commentary, not a question, so I was not able to respond, but the question that came to mind was whether North Kingstown stopped offering full-day kindergarten when the charter schools arrived. If that was not the case (which it wasn’t), then what was preventing the expenditure back then? Where was the money going then, instead of providing a full education to five year olds?
I’ll leave the question floating. In general, though, Sheehan offered an excellent example of government spending rhetoric. When money is going to something that the establishment insiders don’t want to spend it on (or when the people are asking for some of it back), out comes the whole list of desirable things for which the government won’t have the resources if the insiders don’t get their way, even if those desirable things were not funded in the past.
It’s a one-way path to increases, when it comes to government spending. In and out of education, the system is designed to siphon off more and more money in costs that are proclaimed to be fixed. The bill must therefore always go up just to maintain the same level of service. Ask for something new or different, and you’re bound to face a history teacher who seems not to have learned some of the key lessons of his subject matter.