No, race isn’t the cause of our economic and education woes

March 11, 2011

Just when you think the conservatives can’t possibly sound any more like fascists of the 1930s . . . I mean, can we just repeal Godwin’s law and call a racist fascist argument, a racist fascist argument?

Paul Krugman, whose Nobel Memorial Prize for economics galls conservatives more than left turns bothered J. Edgar Hoover, noted the other day that Texas is in a series of fixes.  This is important because Texas is what Wisconsin’s governor claims Wisconsin should be:  Shorn of union interference in almost all things, especially in public service sectors including education.  Krugman wrote in his column, “Leaving Children Behind”:

Texas likes to portray itself as a model of small government, and indeed it is. Taxes are low, at least if you’re in the upper part of the income distribution (taxes on the bottom 40 percent of the population are actually above the national average). Government spending is also low. And to be fair, low taxes may be one reason for the state’s rapid population growth, although low housing prices are surely much more important.

But here’s the thing: While low spending may sound good in the abstract, what it amounts to in practice is low spending on children, who account directly or indirectly for a large part of government outlays at the state and local level.

And in low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average.

But wait — how can graduation rates be so low when Texas had that education miracle back when former President Bush was governor? Well, a couple of years into his presidency the truth about that miracle came out: Texas school administrators achieved low reported dropout rates the old-fashioned way — they, ahem, got the numbers wrong.

It’s not a pretty picture; compassion aside, you have to wonder — and many business people in Texas do — how the state can prosper in the long run with a future work force blighted by childhood poverty, poor health and lack of education.

But things are about to get much worse.

A few months ago another Texas miracle went the way of that education miracle of the 1990s. For months, Gov. Rick Perry had boasted that his “tough conservative decisions” had kept the budget in surplus while allowing the state to weather the recession unscathed. But after Mr. Perry’s re-election, reality intruded — funny how that happens — and the state is now scrambling to close a huge budget gap. (By the way, given the current efforts to blame public-sector unions for state fiscal problems, it’s worth noting that the mess in Texas was achieved with an overwhelmingly nonunion work force.)

Krugman was too easy on Perry.  In his campaign last year, Perry claimed that Texas had plenty of money, a surplus, even.  In debates with Democratic candidate Bill White, Perry pooh-poohed the notion that Texas had a sizable deficit, certainly not the $18 billion deficit White named.

No, the Texas deficit actually is north of $25 billion.  (Linda Chavez-Thompson, the defeated Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, addressed Perry’s denial in a line that very few reporters bothered to report (or report accurately):  “Do you know how many zeroes there are in 18 billion?” Chavez-Thompson said. “11, when you count Perry and Dewhurst.”)

But blogger Iowahawk would hear none of that — no, the issue isn’t bad government and poor fiscal management.  Texas loses out in education because its got more racial minorities, he wrote at some length.

Other bloggers who should know better, or at least should be struck by the repugnance of the claim that race is the problem, spread the claim, including Paul E. Peterson at EducationNext and Mark at Pseudo-Polymath.

Krugman’s original point was untouched by any of these guys.  Texas is in deep trouble, on many, many fronts.  One of the more common comments on Texas education is, “Thank God for Mississippi!”  Mississippi’s having closed down its education system rather than integrate, and continued underfunding and mismanagement since the federal government forced the reopening, keeps Mississippi at the bottom of almost all state rankings regarding children.  That means Texas isn’t dead last.  Texas’s very real problems will affect racial disparities in achievement, but they are in no way caused by racial disparity, or race of the students.

Notice, too, how Iowahawk changed the comparison.  Krugman noted dropout rates.  Unable to muster a direct rebuttal to Krugman’s point, Iowahawk switched to comparing scores in NAEP.  It’s not the same thing by any stretch.

No Texas teacher would say Texas performs better than any other state in stopping dropouts.  While we might brag a bit on how we’ve increased scores on the ACT and SAT, it’s not across the board, and it’s not enough.  (It’s a miracle with the stingy funding, and it will likely stop with the proposed budget cuts — but we’re proud of our ability to make improvement despite obstacles carefully placed by state policy makers.)

Notice, too, that dropouts tend to perform more poorly on standardized tests.  If one wishes to screw around with the statistics for spin, one might note that by forcing students to drop out, Texas raises its scores on NAEP.  I seriously doubt any Texas educator conducts a campaign to get dropouts to boost NAEP scores, but let’s be realistic.  (Which is not to say that there is not a lot of action to mask the dropout problem; a Texas high school is responsible for the academic achievement of kids who drop out, or more accurately, the lack of academic achievement.  Dropouts count against a school’s performance rating, and count hard.  Every school on the cusp of “Exemplary,” or “Recognized,” or “Unacceptable,” has a campaign to track down dropouts to find that they have enrolled in another school to whom blame can be passed, or that they have left the state or the nation, and so don’t count in Texas at all.  One wishes one could school administrators and legislators in Deming’s Red Bead Experiment.)

It’s impossible to claim Wisconsin union teachers are to blame for any Wisconsin woe, when Texas, with it’s strong anti-union stands and ban on unionizing among teachers, performs worse, on average.

Will busting the unions put Wisconsin in the black?  It didn’t work for Texas.

Will busting the unions help Wisconsin schools?  You can’t make that case based on the information from Texas.  In fact, Angus Johnson conducted a more serious analysis of statistics that may provide a better view into the issue, and they tend to show that unionized teachers improve education performance.

Surely these guys understand where their argument ends up.  It is absolutely untrue that Texas’s minorities dragged the state into deficits.

We know where Texas deficits came from.  Several years ago Texas cut property taxes, a key source of education and other funding for the state, promising to make up the difference with corporate tax reforms.  But the corporations blocked significant reform.  Texas has been running on empty for six years, and now the deficits are simply too big to hide.

Unwise tax cuts, made for political gains, that put Texas in the dumper.

It wasn’t unions, and it sure wasn’t the large population of hard-working, tax-paying, union-needing Hispanics and blacks and Native Americans who got Texas in trouble.  They didn’t get the tax cut benefits, for the most part.

Race is not the cause of our education and budget woes, except in this way:  Racists, especially the latent, passive-aggressive sort, will not hesitate to cut programs that they see benefiting minorities.  Those education programs that have done the most to reduce the achievement gaps between the races, boosting minority achievement, are the first to go under the Republican budget meat cleavers.  The proposed cuts are not surgical in any way, to preserve education gains.


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