Thursday, August 7, 2008

Public Funding

While criticizing the inadequacy of public education, John Stossel, host of ABC News’ show 20/20, told a Denver newspaper he’d “give readers $100 if they can tell [him] one thing the government does better than the private sector.” In all fairness, I enjoy Stossel, but where should I start?

The most obvious answer is national defense. There is no way to argue that a private sector militia could more effectively defend the United States. In fact, I can’t think of any time in history when a privatized military force has defended a nation’s citizens. Would the private sector have been able to assemble the forces currently fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq? To quote Bill O’Reilly, “that’s ridiculous.” Not even Grover Norquist, who wants to “shrink government until it’s small enough to drown in the bathtub,” would eliminate the nation’s military. Stossel has reached the point where anti-government rhetoric becomes absurd. Having enjoyed numerous episodes of Stossel’s “Myths, Lies, and Stupidity,” I understand and agree with his core philosophy. The government is too big, too corrupt, and too expensive. Being fiscally conservative, I regularly lament Alaskan “bridges to nowhere” and other examples of bureaucratic disasters. However, I will concede that the government is best at providing not-for-profit services. Fire protection is another obvious example. I support volunteer fire departments, but no private organization could or should replace tax-supported firefighters.

Additionally, as scandalized as many police departments have become in recent years, I can’t imagine a single community in America choosing to disband its police force. Stossel cannot rationally argue that private security forces – the likes of which patrol malls and gated communities – could adequately replace police departments. When government programs such as these become corrupt, the only logical solution is to reform them, not eliminate them. There are simply some tasks that must be done by the government. Interstate highway construction, nuclear energy regulation, NASA, The Clean Water Act, the Center for Disease Control, and the National Institute of Health are other examples of effective government. As America’s original libertarian Henry David Thoreau said, “I ask not at once for no government, but for a better government.”

Stossel’s comment was made in criticism of American public education. It’s easy to blame ineffective government for that. Anyone who has seen Stossel’s special “Stupid in America” knows he provides ample evidence of absurd inadequacies in schools nationwide. His examination of the New York City public school’s union contract is enough to make me lose faith in the system, and I’m a teacher. The problem is Stossel’s generalizations. No one can reasonably argue that “public education does not work.” Consider Cherry Creek High School, a suburban public school in Greenwood Village, Colorado. By all accounts – including comments from real estate agents who say parents regularly limit their housing searches to the surrounding neighborhoods – Cherry Creek is an extremely successful public school. Additionally, I have friends and family who attended New Trier High School and Stevenson High School in the Chicago suburbs. Anyone from Chicago knows there’s nothing wrong with “public education” in those neighborhoods. I’ve had students transfer to schools like Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Florida. Readers of Newsweek’s Best High Schools list will recognize that one. Scarsdale High School in New York and Bellevue High School in Washington are certainly not having any problems, despite being publicly funded. All of these schools, as well as thousands of others, are phenomenal public schools.

These schools are not failures of a government program. Nor do they support the belief that teacher’s unions and tenure are the reasons that public schools fail. Obviously, the success or failure of a school isn’t simply linked to public funding. Sadly, the issue is far more complex than that. Thus, Stossel does his profession a disservice by oversimplifying such an important issue in American society. He is guilty of such obvious flawed logic that my AP Language students would enjoy deconstructing his argument.

I am all for social criticism. Teaching novels of social criticism is a fundamental component of my job. However, I am also a teacher of critical thinking. In that respect, Stossel fails as badly as many of the programs he criticizes. Mr. Stossel, you can make the check out to Michael P. Mazenko, and you can send it care of Cherry Creek High School.

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