Moral Hazzard, Education, and Health Care

According to our collective mythology about schools as the great equalizing force in American society, we want — or say we want — public schools to make a difference. But the reality on the ground often makes a mockery of that ideal. In recent years, public schools have been infected by a system of hidden privileges offered to affluent and politically powerful upper-middle class families and their children — a system that flatly contradicts politicians’ lofty goals of reducing the achievement gaps.

Schools reward privilege in many subtle ways that go mostly unnoticed because the mechanisms are the very fabric of the modern American education system.

Peter Sacks, in the Huffington Post, October 4, 2007

As bell hooks famously noted, class in rarely talked about in the United States, especially in terms of our education system. Sacks is a remarkable exception. Talking about race, especially white privilege, isn’t exactly welcomed either.

I think class and education is even more difficult to discuss when it comes up against our American sentimentality about young children. What parent would go to their child’s elementary school and demand that the privileges afforded Advanced Placement students be made available to all? Who wants to know the messy financial details of our kid’s classmates’ families?

At the heart of the “fabric of the modern American education system” lies the ideals of merit and, at bottom, a kind of Social Darwinism. That’s the iron fist beneath the velvet glove of a privileged childhood. Bush and the Republican Cabal, for example, cannot stomach the idea that more children would be guaranteed health care through a government program. In his view, socialized medicine represents a kind of moral hazard.

What outlandish medical risks would these kids take if they knew that no matter what they did their health care costs would be covered? Obviously, they need the discipline of the market to keep them safe. In school, too, those kids who do the best on the tests get the smaller classes and the most challenging curriculum. What could be more natural?

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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