Public schools have plenty of money. And anyway, money doesn?t affect student performance. If kids aren?t doing well, blame “the left” and its pet fads. Bromides from the Heritage Foundation? Try The Nation two weeks ago, in a signed editorial by right-wing Silicon Valley multimillionaire Ron K. Unz. Billed as a novelty item—EXTRA! Famous conservative says vouchers are bad!—Unz?s editorial couldn?t be older and more tired. His claim to be making fresh arguments (vouchers undermine social cohension, prey on the poor, enable shysters and sects) only shows how ignorant he thinks you are: cf. The Nation, where these arguments are standard fare. Or The New Republic. Or the New York Times. But then, this is a man who bashes “educational elites”—i.e., people who have actually studied education and its history, taught in schools and run them—while using the original elitism—wealth—to buy himself a platform.

In return for the privilege of conveying Unz?s views to Nation readers, the magazine allowed him to publish buckets of bilge. Unz writes, “Over the thirty years between 1960 and 1990, per capita student spending in California rose almost 150 percent above inflation even as its schools went from being among America?s best to among its worst.” Here we have misleading statistics backing up a classic post hoc, ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. Sure, per-pupil school spending rose over thirty years—much of it for federally mandated and funded special education programs—but expenses rose too: Teachers got raises as schools had to compete with widening opportunities for women; the percentage of students with limited English proficiency went from negligible to around 25 percent; the school year was lengthened in response to a legal mandate; schools took on a much heavier social-services burden, trying to keep sane, alive and in class kids who would have been dropouts and pushouts in an earlier era. Given these and other added challenges, that 150 percent rise over thirty years is small potatoes, especially given the increase in inequity brought about by Proposition 13 in 1978, which cut property taxes.

Arguing that money doesn?t buy good schools, Unz compares the high-cost failed system of Washington, DC, with low-cost North Dakota. Talk about apples and oranges! On the one hand, a famously corrupt and dysfunctional city with desperately poor students and a population deprived of national political representation; on the other, a tidy rural state with little deep poverty and a small, socially cohesive population. If money doesn?t affect educational performance, how come rich suburbs spend so much on schools, and how come wealthy parents send their kids to fabulously expensive private schools like Andover and Exeter? Are they simply delusional to value seminar-sized classes and start-of-the-art labs and libraries and music and art and gym and guidance counselors? Why don?t they send their kids to those supercheap, no-frills parochial schools right-wingers recommend—for other people?s children? Of course money matters! It buys, for example, teachers. Unz?s claim that we don?t need “more teachers” means he must think class size doesn?t matter. In fact, numerous studies—for example, Project STAR in Tennessee—have shown that very small classes, particularly in the early years, bring dramatic gains.

Unz blames “the left” and “half-baked educational fads” for our educational woes. But faddism is another old story: Remember new math in the fifties? The left was so powerful then! Unz not only misrepresents history, he provides no evidence that “inventive spelling” or “constructivist science” or self-esteem programs are to blame for the low international rankings he deplores. After all, many of the best schools, public and private, are devoted to educational theories and experiments, and the kids do great. One might with equal justice blame the pet causes of the right, unmentioned by Unz: antidrug and -alcohol ed, sex abstinence classes, creationism, patriotic assemblies, book banning, football mania, obsessive phonics. As for that “straightforward academic curriculum” Unz thinks would make the United States rival “nearly every other major nation”—one wonders if it would include philosophy, as in France; two and three foreign languages, as in the Netherlands and Scandinavia; lavish teacher training, as in Japan.

I could go on and on. Unz?s proposed “bipartisan truce”—if “the left” gives up progressive education, the right “might” call off its “ideological zealots” and abandon vouchers and the rampant commercialization of the schools—is completely disingenuous: Why would conservatives respond to victory by abandoning their cause? The worst thing about the Unz edit, though, is the fact that we published it. For the rest of time, Ron Unz can present his specious arguments and fractured facts as having been vetted by The Nation. Thanks to us, he can portray himself forever as above ideology, a nonpolitical sage, a broker between left and right—when he?s just a conservative oddball with a bee in his bonnet and a ton of money.

Well, Unz was the last straw for me (list of earlier straws provided on request). I?ve resigned as associate editor and am now simply a columnist. So don?t send me your articles, don?t complain to me that the magazine is moving rightward and publishes mostly boring white guys, and don?t ask me to justify, or even explain, why anything in these pages is the way it is. I will probably be as mystified as you.


For the past two years, the deep generosity of Nation readers has helped fund two-week summer-camp stays for Bosnian refugee children under the auspices of the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights organization. Once again, the BIF is turning to us for help; $150 underwrites one child?s vacation, but donations of any size are warmly welcomed. You can send checks made out to the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt to me at the Nation address, and I will forward them to Germany.

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