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The Oklahoma Blob Votes Itself Largesse

June 21, 2016 - 4:07pm CDT

By Greg Forster

Oklahoma’s education blob—school unions, education schools, and their allies—is becoming unusually shameless in its determination to vote itself another taxpayer bailout. Of course the blob is always on the lookout for another hustle. But in Oklahoma this year, things are getting to a point that might make even Donald Trump blush.

Contrary to widespread reports (predating even the Internet!) Alexis de Tocqueville did not say that democracies always die quickly because “the majority discovers it can vote itself largesse from the public treasury.” That eloquent cynic was 18th century Scots historian Alexander Tytler. Tocqueville thought democracy, for all its faults, was here to stay in the modern world. But Oklahoma’s education blob could be Exhibit A for Tytler’s brief against democracy’s survival.

First it was a ballot initiative, championed by University of Oklahoma President David Boren. If approved, it will hike the state sales tax to fund a slate of goodies for educators, with the bulk of the proceeds going to an across-the-board $5,000 raise for all teachers. That doesn’t make sense for anyone but the blob—even if we think raising salaries is the best way to spend money on education, why do it indiscriminately? Teachers should be treated like professionals, and paid based on performance.

An indiscriminate raise only makes sense if this is a naked grab for money. And what do you know? Boren’s boondoggle would throw $125 million at higher education—i.e., at Boren—“to keep down tuition and fees.” Throwing cash at colleges will help raise tuition and fees, of course, but it will be too late to do anything about that once Boren has his boodle.

Next, in early April, around 30 educators announced they were filing together to run for state offices in the fall. Their platform? To fight for more money for educators. I wonder how I would be greeted if I announced I was running for office to fight for more money for columnists.

Since then, Oklahoma has seen a steady drip, drip, drip of press events and publicity stunts from the education blob. Offers of compromise on teacher compensation packages have been publicly rejected with anger and scorn. Ellen DeGeneres repeatedly brought an Oklahoma elementary school librarian on her talk show. Search Google News for “Oklahoma education” if you doubt that even the most inflammatory rhetoric can become boring if repeated often enough.

Perhaps the most commonly cited statistic in the current publicity campaign—often obediently regurgitated by a compliant press—is that Oklahoma is 48th in the nation in education spending. I’m always skeptical of this claim, because I’ve heard it made in so many different states. For years, a small group of education consultants has made a lucrative living working for the blob, devising ridiculous new formulas for calculating education spending so that each state can be made to look like it’s 48th or 49th. I know how Martin Luther must have felt when he used to tell people he had visited all 18 of the true burial sites of the 12 apostles.

In Oklahoma, it turns out, this standard-issue lie—while it is still a lie—isn’t as far from the truth as usual. U.S. Department of Education data show the state is actually 45th. That’s not surprising given its low cost of living, lower levels of urbanization, and other conditions. The state spends $8,813 per student, which adds up to more than $220,000 for each class of 25 students—hardly what one would call miserly.

Perhaps there’s a rational case that Oklahoma should spend more on schools. If so, I haven’t run across it going through pages and pages of the blob’s invective. Their argument boils down to “we spend X amount and it’s too little! We need to spend more more more!”

A press corps with any self-respect or sense of professional responsibility would ask the blob questions like these: Why have previous increases in school budgets and teacher salaries failed to produce educational improvements? Why shouldn’t the new spending you demand be targeted to more specific, publicly identified needs instead of being allocated indiscriminately? How much spending—give us a dollar amount—would be enough to make you say spending is sufficient and any problems that persist are the responsibility of the schools?

The important point is not whether Oklahoma should spend more. The important point is whether Oklahoma is going to decide this question rationally, or based on bullying demands from the people who stand to gain monetarily.

Self-interest can be funny to watch. In February, Oklahoma edu-blogger Rob Miller was scandalized at the thought that some members of the state legislature might vote in favor of an education savings account (ESA) program and then make use of it to send their own children to a school of their choice. Since the launch of the blob’s publicity campaign this spring, however, he has changed his tune. Now he is full of praise for the educators who are lobbying and running for office so the state will give them more money.

But the consequences of self-interest are no laughing matter. Tytler had a point about the danger in a democracy that one self-interested faction can become large enough to get its way through mere self-assertion. It was precisely this danger that moved James Madison to write Federalist #10, which stands alongside the Declaration of Independence in expressing the heart and soul of the American constitutional order.

The blob is not, strictly speaking, a majority. But it is just about as close as anything in American history has ever come to being the majority faction that Tytler and Madison warned against. (Retirees are almost their only competition in this regard.) The government school monopoly employs millions. Teachers represent only half of the school system’s employees; the system also employs armies of bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc. We’d get better services at lower prices if these services were privatized, but that won’t happen because it would contract the blob’s enormous political power base.

This, far more than money, is the blob’s source of political power. In many state and federal legislative districts, the local schools are the largest employer. What legislator doesn’t want to shove more money into the maw of the system from which so many of his constituents draw their paychecks?

But don’t get too haughty too quickly, comfortable reader. Those rural and suburban legislators aren’t only thinking about the blob’s interests. They may be thinking about yours, too.

Do you own a home in a neighborhood with good public schools? If so, school choice and other effective education reforms would take some money out of your pocket, because the value of those schools has been priced into your home value. In a society where the government school monopoly has restricted people’s access to good schools, bringing justice to the oppressed would be costly for those of us who have purchased access to good schools under the old system. The “I’ve got mine” factor among suburban homeowners is at least as big a barrier to reform as the blob.

Madison and Tocqueville knew what Tytler knew, but they also knew more. Like them, we need to be realistic about self-interest, but not cynical. Human nature is powerfully affected by self-interest, as the embarrassing spectacle of the Oklahoma blob shows. We need not be revolutionaries and try to make a brave new world where no such selfishness occurs; as Madison and Tocqueville both warned us, such utopianism is the quickest road to a pure dictatorship of the selfish. But democracy is nonetheless threatened by unrestrained selfishness, for the majority can in fact vote itself largesse.

Those who demand that government spend more money on themselves should be examined with heightened skepticism. The public interest (in this case, the education of children) should be clearly distinguished from private interests (budgets, salaries, and home prices). And policy should be designed, broadly and in the details, to serve the public interest only. None of that is being advanced by the blob’s campaign in Oklahoma or the press response to it.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness. He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.