Tag Archives: edreform

Parents and the Two Income Trap

One of the dimensions of force in the education reform debate is child-care, with both parents and large employers viewing schools primarily as a way to turn children into adults with specifics skills, attitudes, and knowledge. Of the three dimensions of force (money, power, and childcare), childcare is the one with the least complex. While teachers and publishers battle each other for the chance to divert money away from children and to themselves, and while States and Districts squabble over political power, parents and large employers do not disagree about much. Both desire children to become productive members of society.

Importantly, both also suffer from a collective action problem. That is, the cost for making America’s education system world-class is high, and any individual parent or employer can opt-out by simply renting better childcare on their own. For employers this means paying slightly more for one of the competent workers, and for parents this means paying slightly more for one of the competent schools. The consequences for employers and employees of the first part of this is clear: a greater labor cost means a higher standard of living (and least in the short run) for competent workers, and greater automation and outsourcing to compensating for it, leading to a lower standard of living (at least in the short run) for those automated or outsourced out of a job.

The consequences for parents are more profound.

The K-12 education market in the United States is profoundly warped. Parents typically buy access to good schools through pay rent or mortgages in good school districts. Because the teaching profession has been lobotomized through low wages, sending children to many schools would be morally tantimount to child abuse. Bidding wars thus erupt to gain access to these good schools, in the forms of expensive mortgages and high rents. People who actually own this property (apartment managers, real estate developers, and mortgage holders) become rentiers who profit at the expense of parents trying to provide a better life for their children. (Thus, landowners are an important rentier class in the education debate, along with teachers and publishers).

This leads many parents to face what Elizabeth Warren called “the two income trap.” The bidding war for good schools, along with the breakdown of widespread sexual discrimination, encourages both men and women to work, and use the excess income to buy housing near a good school. This means that if the husband loses work for whatever reason, the wife cannot temporarily increase the family’s income by taking additional part-time work. Further, in the event of a medical emergency in the family, the wife cannot act as a “free” caregiver. In both cases, America’s two-earner encouraged by our bad schools increases the financial risks of families, and thus increases domestic violence, divorce, and economic ruin.

While the low quality of America’s teacher workforce is certainly one reason for this, others exist as well. America’s education management force is low quality as well. Further, peers matter — who a child goes to school with matters quite a lot. Parents (meaning parents who are actually engaged with and concerned for their child’s future) can reasonable expect a school to be better if fewer students from low-income households attend it. Thus, a brutal but effectve way to increase the quality of schools for many parents would be to exclude students from communities that historically are not focused on education. Brown v. Board of Education and other cases have made this policy untenable, however, leading to more low-income parents to be priced out of good schools because they now have economic competition from communities of comparative earning ability but with a broken pipeline to class mobility.

But in either case, the problems remain. And the economic stress bad schools place on parents mean that solutions that require paying teachers more — such as turning teaching into a profession — may be impractical.

How to Be a Central Actor in the Education Debate

Education policy in the United States has enjoyed two central actors in the past century — first the Teachers’ Front Organizations, and more recently the Federal-Academic Complex. The Teachers Front Organizations include the American Federation of Teachers (“AFT”) labor union, the National Education Association (“NEA”) labor union, the National Parent-Teacher Association (“your school’s PTA”), school boards who membership is influenced by teacher turn-out, and so on. The Federal-Academic Complex is composed of major research universities, the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, large charitable trusts, and so on.

The Central Actor — whether as in the past Teachers Front Organizations, or as now the Federal-Academic Complex — is a bank. Actors that are more narrowly focused will trade the resources they have to the Central Actor in order to gain more of the resource they most prize.

In the past, when Teachers Front Organizations were the Central Actor, and all dimensions of force focused on them. Publishers used their political power to flatter teacher-controlled school boards to sell their books, parents paid taxes to teacher-run schools to take care of their children, and State politicians gave control of childcare o teacher organizations to secure their own elections. Teacher Front Organizations easily converted money, power, and childcare, and used canny trades to increase their money, power, and control over children.

Now, that the Federal-Academic Complex is the Central Actor, all these processes still occur — but the Federal-Academic Complex, not the Teacher Front Organizations, benefit. It is impossible to search online or read twitter without encountering howls of pain and anguish from teachers, who correctly see that their power is being eviscerated and that bureaucrats, scientists, do-gooders, and academics are enjoying the rewards that used to be theirs. Worse, from the stand-point of teachers, teacher welfare has gone from being one of the objectives of the Central Actor to a thing that can be bargained away. It is hard to imagine publishers gaining enough leverage over the Teacher Front Organizations to divert a significant amount of money away from teachers and to themselves. It trivially easy to imagine Publishers trading that much power to the Federal-Academic Complex to divert money away from teachers and to themselves.

One reason for the current weakness of teachers is the lobotomy of low wages, but of course low wages don’t just happen — they were caused. Specifically, the rise of the Federal-Academic Complex and the fall of Teachers Front Organizations is the result of a broader trend: the dismantling of democracy in the United States that began in the 1930s under President Roosevelt.

In same ways, this was a good thing. I’ve previously written that the military-industrial complex keeps the world safe from American democracy, and in the education reform debate I am more sympathetic to the Federal-Academic Complex than to what is left of the Teachers Front Organizations. But it is undeniable that the ability of “bottom-up” teachers organizations to control education policy in the United States was eventually killed by the “top-down” tendencies of the Federal Bureaucracy. Step-by-step the Teachers Front Organizations allowed the Federal-Academic Complex to aggrandize itself, not realizing its threat as a top-down competitor and instead just treating it as another weak partner, ripe for parasitism.

In order to be a Central Actor, you need to things: the ability to act as bank for more narrow-minded actors, and the possession of a politically-feasible foundation. The Teachers Front Organizations, formerly diverse and uniquely suited to local American democracy, used to possess these attributes. The Federal-Academic Complex, diverse and unique suited to the commanding heights of the American economy, now possesses them, instead.