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Christy Clark's Forty Bucks a Day Zombie Tactic

Why it revives the all but dead school voucher idea, and why conservatives love it.

Crawford Kilian 4 Aug

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Premier Clark: If $40 a day won't solve the real needs of parents and children, why offer it?

We're in the dead of summer, even before the back-to-school sales, and the B.C. teachers' strike has been going on quietly, behind the scenes. So it seemed odd when Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced his subsidy of $40 a day per child to parents of children 13 or younger, if the strike actually carries on into September.

Reportedly the offer could offset the costs of child care, or tutoring, or finding online courses. Or maybe beer and popcorn for the parents as a consolation for spending unpaid quality time with their kids.

Whatever the impromptu baby bonus might be for, it's scant compensation for missed days or weeks of school. It also offers an insight into the way the BC Liberals think about government in general and education in particular.

On the face of it, de Jong's announcement seemed like one of those performance-art stunts that right-wing governments are so fond of, like ending the long-form census. They're not responding to a popular demand, just expressing amused contempt for their adversaries.

It's certainly not a serious proposal. Good luck finding child care on short notice when everyone else is too, and what parent can judge a tutor's qualifications? For that matter, what parent would allow a stranger to be alone at home with their kids while Mom and Dad are working?

The money, an estimated $12 million a day, would come from what the government would save while the teachers are on strike. Much of it would likely go unspent and return silently to the government's general revenues, when it could have been stashed in a bank and earning interest for the education budget.

Return of a zombie idea

So why do it?

One reason, I suspect, is partly to give the teachers a poke in the eye for old times' sake, an opportunity the BC Liberals have never missed since Premier Christy Clark was appointed the party's first education minister in 2001.

But another reason may be to resurrect a zombie idea that should have died in the 1980s and '90s: the school voucher.

Public schools were under attack in those days too, by conservatives who said we couldn't compete with the Japanese (in the 1950s they said we couldn't compete with the Soviets).

The conservatives shut up when the Japanese economy tanked, but never gave up their argument: for real excellence in education, give parents money to spend on their children's education wherever they see fit.

The premise was that in a free market, good schools will drive out bad. Armed with real spending power, parents will pull their kids out of bad or mediocre schools and put them into excellent schools -- ideally, charter schools running without tedious unionized teachers and staff, and offering a more business-oriented curriculum.

The idea caught on to some extent. You could argue that B.C.'s current subsidy to independent schools is a kind of voucher, payable directly to the school when the child enrols. But those schools still have to meet B.C. curriculum standards.

Overall, however, everywhere from Sweden to Louisiana to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, vouchers have flopped and the public system, warts and all, continues to dominate.

Immunity to experience

Still, conservatives are, like Scott Fitzgerald's middle-aged matron, "preserved into another generation by good digestion and immunity to experience." They continue to endorse vouchers despite their manifest failure; that's the definition of a zombie idea.

Vouchers, like collectivizing the peasants or running backyard blast furnaces, are an ideologically driven concept. Without a shred of evidence, ideologies make assertions about human nature and the ideal human society, and then plunge ahead to make that society real.

In the case of North American conservative ideology, the assertion is that the human being is primarily a consumer, perfectly informed and making rational choices about which goods and services to consume. A corollary is that this consumer has no relationship to other consumers except as a competitor. If I must beggar my neighbour to acquire more and better stuff, too bad for my neighbour.

While conservatives have to put up with the forms of democratic process, they can expedite their ideal society by limiting the process -- setting out only a narrowly defined set of alternatives for the voters to choose. They have achieved remarkable success since the 1970s in doing so, using think-tanks, media relations and cooperative politicians to create right-wing agendas that even left-wing parties have to pay lip service to. We are even reduced to defending education as an "investment," as if it were a business venture instead of a simple social good.

The 40-buck precedent

In the present situation, Clark's and de Jong's 40-buck solution looks like a possible precedent for bringing back vouchers: giving parents their kids' per capita operating costs and letting them spend it anywhere. Never mind the capital expenditures or fixed costs -- no one thinks about them, and once the kids are committed to a school those extra costs can come out of the parents' pockets.

If they regard government as a barely necessary evil, conservatives who gain power can reduce the evil by reducing expectations of government services. So they save "hard-working taxpayers' dollars" by cutting taxes and thereby cutting services.

The taxpayers may have a few extra bucks in their pocket, but they'll have to spend far more to buy the privatized equivalent of services they once enjoyed. Pretty soon no one will even remember when government used to run a good postal service, or enforce environmental protection, or provide a solid, universal public school system.

In the case of public education, at least, this really amounts to a "category error" in the conservatives' ideology. They think job training is the whole and only purpose of education, and anything else is a "frill."

They're also unclear on the beneficiaries. They think education is a subsidy paid to parents who want their children to gain a competitive edge for the cut-throat world of the free market. (The media endorse this view by harping on inconvenienced parents during a teachers' strike.) Getting the parents' votes by paying them a $40 subsidy is a cost of doing business as a self-dismantling government.

In reality, public education is a cost of doing business as a sustainable democratic society. It has nothing to do with parents except that they too want to bequeath such a society to their children. The purpose is not simply to teach the skills demanded by the current market, plus an obedient frame of mind; that's actually the responsibility of employers, who are the welfare-queen beneficiaries of the present system.

Trying to divide parents and teachers

The real purpose of public education is to equip young people with the skills, knowledge, and mindset needed to assume control of the country itself. They are the citizen-proprietors of Canada, not cheaply trained employees. If they are currently alienated from the democratic political process, they are like shareholders bamboozled into letting management run wild while ignoring their best interests.

In immediate political terms, the BC Liberals' bamboozling seems to be based on isolating B.C. teachers. As those with the greatest interest in smoothly running public schools, parents have tended to support the BCTF, and most are aware that the B.C. Supreme Court has twice upheld the teachers' position on their breached contracts of 2002 and 12 years of deliberate underfunding.

But Christy Clark and her finance minister seem to think that 40 bucks a day for babysitting (or popcorn and beer) will pry parents away from the teachers. Hey, when it's ideology, it doesn't have to make sense.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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