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Civics Lesson

The Republican War on the Common Good

A nation we build together is worth fighting for—and it’s on the ballot.

Tom Williams/Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

On Sunday, a fascinating article in The New York Times raised (without quite discussing it in these terms) one of the most profound questions of political philosophy that one can ponder. At the same time, it concerns a principle that’s so obviously essential to civilized life that it’s shocking we even have to defend it. But alas, because the American right wing is so bananas these days, defend it we must.

The Times’ Dan Barry reported on a situation in the tiny town of Croydon, New Hampshire, where a right-wing anti-government freako named Ian Underwood moved to cut the local school budget in half, from $1.7 million to $800,000. He and his wife—who presides over the school board, no less!—moved to New Hampshire as part of the “Free State” movement, a conscious effort by right-wingers to populate the Granite State with as many like-minded extremists as possible, the better to turn the state into some kind of von Miseian paradise where there is, essentially, no state. The Underwoods are childless, and Ian Underwood is quoted in the article as asking rhetorically: “Why is that guy paying for that guy’s kids to be educated?”  

I’ve actually been wondering for many years when the right was going to get around to this line of attack. As matters stand in the United States of America, and as far as I know more or less everywhere in the developed world, education is paid for by the state—either mostly by local governments (the United States), or the national government (France). This web page gives a good summary of how public education is funded around the globe. It’s a fairly recent consensus in historical terms—only in the last half of the twentieth century have countries like Brazil, India, and Colombia come to accept that they have to pay the freight for universal education. But accept it they have. As a result, educational inequality around the world has decreased dramatically.

In the U.S., of course, public education is mostly funded by property taxes and financed by local governments. There are problems with this, as there are with any system invented by imperfect human beings, the main one being that rich districts have a lot more money and thus much better schools; but even still, the good part is that we as a society accept the idea that we all have to contribute. It does not matter whether you have children in the schools. The principle is that even if you are childless, or your children have grown and gone to college, or you send them to private school, or school them yourself at home, you still pay, and you pay because you benefit from a well-educated populace.

I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, home to great schools and high taxes. My daughter happens to go to a public school that is excellent (and happily just up the street). But even if I had no daughter, or sent her to a private school, I would still agree that it was my responsibility to pay for the great public schools my county offers children. It makes for a better county, a better class of citizen, a better nation.

This is a core principle of civilized society: We all contribute to certain activities that have clear universal social benefit. To use Underwood’s sick terminology, that guy pays for that guy’s child to be educated because the first guy benefits when the second guy’s kid is learning math and science and pondering Hamlet’s soliloquy and being prepared for responsible, productive adulthood. Anyone who can’t see that connection is a selfish prick. And if nothing else, even selfish pricks ought to be able to see that good schools increase the value of their homes.

The question of political philosophy is this: What is the common good—what must it include, and what is each citizen’s responsibility toward securing it? We decided in the U.S. a little more than a century ago that universal public education, free to every child and paid for by all of us, was central to any definition of a common good. The world, as I noted above, has largely come to agree. An educated populace serves all of us. Debates about curricula are another issue, and those debates are legitimate, as long as people aren’t lying (my daughter, who just finished sixth grade in a quite liberal school district, reports that yes, she’s learned all about Rosa Parks and so on, but no teacher has ever tried to make her feel guilty about being white). But even both sides in that debate accept that the public schools are a common good; they just disagree about what should be taught.

More broadly, conservatives have been trying to undermine public education for 70 years now. This goes back to Brown v. Board of Education, in whose wake many Southern school districts set up all-white segregation academies or in some cases stopped collecting the local taxes that supported public schools (it took a Supreme Court decision in 1968, a full 14 years after Brown, to end the most egregious forms of that racist mischief). 

Then, starting in earnest in the 1980s, under Reagan-era education secretary and insufferable moral crusader Bill “Snake Eyes” Bennett, the right promoted school vouchers and charter schools, both of which, numerous studies have found, have simply not been the panacea the right advertised them to be.

Right-wing rich people and foundations have spent God knows how many millions since then promoting these private educational alternatives. That’s their right, of course. But imagine if they’d spent those millions trying to shore up public schools in poor districts, or financing early reading programs for poor children from Harlem to eastern Kentucky to the reservations of Arizona. The country would be so much better off.

In the end in Croydon, New Hampshire—or at least the end so far—Ian Underwood got crushed. The people of Croydon got organized and held a special meeting, voting to overturn his budget cuts. The vote was 377–2. The Times framed the story as a happy one of alarmed citizens realizing that for democracy to be alive, they have to participate in it, and that’s true.

But it’s also a cautionary tale. I expect the coming years will see the mainstreaming of the argument that people who aren’t parents of public-school children shouldn’t have to pay for schools. Liberals must fight back tooth and nail, and not on some statistical point cooked up by some timid pollster, but at the very philosophical root of the argument. We cannot retreat from a century-old consensus that has done the nation enormous good.