The Regressive Agenda

Is public education a sign that government is too big? That’s what a front-running GOP congressional candidate in California thinks. Nick Baumann at Mother Jones reports that David Harmer, who hopes to defeat Rep. Jerry McNerney in California’s 11th congressional district, has advocated for eliminating the public education system altogether:

[I]n 2000, he published a lengthy op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, "Abolish the Public Schools." In that Chronicle piece, Harmer argues that "government should exit the business of running and funding schools." He contends that would allow for "quantum leaps in educational quality and opportunity" and notes that he's simply pushing for a return to "the way things worked through the first century of American nationhood." Here's how he describes the wondrous world of early American education:

“[L]iteracy levels among all classes, at least outside the South, matched or exceeded those prevailing now, and... public discourse and even tabloid content was pitched at what today would be considered a college-level audience. Schooling then was typically funded by parents or other family members responsible for the student, who paid modest tuition. If they couldn't afford it, trade guilds, benevolent associations, fraternal organizations, churches and charities helped. In this quintessentially American approach, free people acting in a free market found a variety of ways to pay for a variety of schools serving a variety of students, all without central command or control.”

Yet historians say the early American education system was nothing like that. Back then, even high school was a luxury. "The high school at that point is a kind of elite form of education pretty much limited to the inner cities," says John Rury, an education historian at the University of Kansas. The rest of the system was far from comprehensive. What early schools taught, Rury says, were "very basic literacy and computational skills." Many schools only met four or five months a year, and their quality varied widely. "To get to a higher level of cognitive performance, you needed to have more teachers and longer school years, and that drove costs up," he explains. That led to modern taxpayer-supported schools. "Look around the world," says Rury. "Do we have an example of a modern, well-developed school system that operates on the model this person is advocating? We don't."

Granted, Harmer is the only one of this year’s batch of far-right candidates who has wanted to go so far as to eliminate public education (though pleas to get rid of the standards-enforcing Department of Education are common). But his argument does illuminate the Tea Party movement’s enthusiastic embrace of radically regressive policies. For instance, there’s Rand Paul’s plug for replacing the income tax with a flat national sales tax (ensuring that the poor are disproportionately hit by taxes and the rich are home free), there's Ken Buck's proposal to privatize the Centers for Disease Control's public health work, there’s Christine O’Donnell’s insistence that non-citizens with serious injuries should be turned away by hospitals (which, as Adam Serwer points out, flies in the face of both decency and a law signed by Ronald Reagan), and then there’s the gleefully righteous reaction on the Right to the absurdly symbolic incident of the pay-for-play fire department that stood by while a house burned down.

These aren’t instances of opposition to further expansion of government. They’re examples of a backwards-looking ideology taken to its logical, and disastrous, extremes.