THE NEOCONSERVATIVE imagination, armed with the authority of computers and ingenious sophistries posing as disinterested analysis, has done extraordinary damage to common sense and public values in the last 15 years. The neoconservatives are living proof that even intellectuals can bedangerous and pernicious ideas can hurt innocent people.
In a few weeks, the voters of the District of Columbia will be asked to vote themselves a gross "tax cut" -- an educational tuition tax credit of $1,200 -- which would not only destabilize the financing of city government, but shift millions of dollars in public funds to private schools. The money would flow from Dunbar High to St. Albans. From Anacostia to Foxhall Road. From black to white, from poor to rich. It sounds too preposterous to worry over, but this redistribution of income is disguised as a tax cut for everyone. It's conceivable, given these troubled times, that voters will be misled into wrecking the D.C. public schools, just when they are getting their act together.
This would fulfill a major goal of the neoconservatives, who wish to "privatize" choices about public money, in order to attack that infamous group of citizens known as the "new class." This "new class" is supposed to be a collection of information and education specialists paid by the government to leech off the productive side of society. On closer examination, the "new class," it turns out, is composed mainly of public school teachers. In my experience, they are perhaps the last defenders of orthodox values. The D.C. school teachers I've met, especially the black teachers, believe in God and Bible, the flag, honesty, the importance of work and careers, and heterosexual marriage. If anything, they are aggressively old-fashioned in their values. Never mind this reality. The neoconservatives, lately amplified by the Elmer Gantrys of the '80s, have portrayed the "new class" as greedy and licentious conspirators, sapping America's vital juices by teaching deviant doctrines.
Roughly speaking, the argument began in 1965 with James S. Coleman and his landmark study of American schools. Coleman did not go to schools or talk to children and teachers (where he would have found many things wrong); he analyzed numbers, thousands of comparisons on schools, budgets, performance. In the years since, Coleman has provided so many different versions of what the Coleman Report meant that it's difficult to say exactly what he meant, but there was one overriding theme which appealed to the neoconservative mind.
Money doesn't matter. The things which money buys for schools -- equipment and books and buildings, better teachers' salaries, more teachers and smaller classes -- don't seem to matter either. At least Coleman's computer couldn't find any impact on performance.
Common sense tells you this is wrong, but common sense did not deter those who already held the public schools in low regard. They were thrilled by Coleman's insight. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a professor and now a U.S. senator, was so smitten by the possibilities that he organized a prestigious seminar at Harvard to explore the implications of Coleman. In time, Coleman's logic was applied by other neoconservative intellectuals to other realms of government activities, particularly the Great Society programs, and the result was a kind of pinch-penny version of "less is more." An important idea gained conventional acceptance: If these programs like Head Start made so little difference to the recipients, why did the government spend so much of them? The neoconservative answer: The "new class" was merely feathering its own nest.
Now we are in the 1980s and that neoconservative logic lends intellectual cover for the budget reductions proposed by President Reagan, aimed disproportionately at education. Ironically, the hard evidence of national testing is now beginning to show the real impact of money on education: Black students are improving their test scores relative to whites, which strongly suggests that targeted federal aid to the disadvantaged may be working after all.
Only a funny thing happened to the neoconservative logic along the way: Now the Colemans and the Moynihans want billions of dollars diverted from the public treasury to private schools. Their vehicle is the tuition tax credit. Their rhetoric argues for wider choices for parents. Who could be against that?
But wait a minute. If money doesn't make any difference for public schools, why are Coleman and Moynihan so anxious to get tax dollars into the hands of private schools? Indeed, what maked exclusive provate schools so attractive (in addition to that fact that they exclude the unwashed and difficult children who attend public schools) is small classes. And in fact, at the Catholic schools, the new tax dollars would be used to relieve their teachers' overburden. Which Coleman told us doesn't make any difference. Apparently, it comes down to this: Money matters to private schools but not to public schools.
Anyway, in 1981, Coleman produced another study which also produced headlines with startling news: Private schools are less segregated, by race and class, than public schools. This is so specious, so contrary to every citizen's personal knowledge, that it hardly requires argument. Coleman's claim, to put it simply, is based on a notion that each private school with a few carefully chosen blacks, a few token poor kids, provides more integration -- because all of the other students, white and well-to-do, get to mix with them. In many public schools, this salt-and-pepper bliss is impossible: too many blacks, to many poor students. To repeat the obvious, private schools, including Catholic schools, draw their students disproportionately from the upper-income families (by Coleman's own figures, 43 percent from families with $25,000 income and up compared with 27 percent in public schools). On race, the imbalance is more dramatic (832,000 blacks in public schools; 31,000 blacks in all private schools, including Catholic systems).
This time, Coleman ran into heavy weather among his academic peers. Instead of fawning over his brilliant new insights, they denounced his latest effort for shoddy analysis. I will quote just one of many critics, Arthur S. Goldberger, an economist at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences: ". . . the quality of documentation, analysis and interpretation is so defective that it is hard to avoid the overall conclusion that the report reeks with incompetence and irresponsibility."
Never mind. Coleman's fatuous claims are the stuff that politicians like Moynihan can use as "evidence" to support a federal tuition tax credit. That idea is temporarily stalled by budget realities so, in the meantime, the advocates have settled on the District of Columbia as a popular laboratory for their idea. Everyone recognizes the strong racial spin on a proposal to help mostly white private schools. If the mostly black D.C. electorate can be sold on this scheme, then the sponsors can claim that the racial taint is erased. That will help sell Congress.
Now we come to the trick. About 20 percent of D.C. school children attend private and parochial schools and most of them are white. In order to convince everyone else that this is a good deal, the sponsors have proposed a new wrinkle: The tax credit, up to $1,200, can be applied to the educational expenses of public school students too. Now every parent wins. Right? To make it even better, you can take a tax credit by giving money on behalf of a student who is not even your child. Now nonparents win too. And why discriminate against corporations? They care about education too. So, under this referendum proposal, a corporation can take educational tax credits up to 50 percent of its total D.C. tax bill -- a revenue nightmare for city hall, not to mention the public school system.
The discriminatory effects should be obvious. Upper-income families will enjoy the full credit; perhaps they will even pass it on to the private schools who will be free to raise their tuitions. Public schools in my part of town, the far Northwest, would be able to cope, simply by asking parents to make generous private contributions which they can then take off their taxes. On the other side of town, low-income families could not possibly take the full $1,200 tax credit and the public schools which have the largest concentrations of poor children are the schools which would suffer most from this reallocation of tax dollars.
David W. Breneman, an education expert at Brookings (who shares my particular bias on this subject: our children attend the D.C. schools), suggests that, after the neoconservatives have dissolved the public contract for public education in the name of "free choice," they might start thinking about parks. After all, is it fair for the government to provide public parks at taxpayers' expense when some of those taxpayers would rather play golf at private golf courses? Perhaps the Moynihans and Colemans should start exploring equity and performance in recreation. Would not golf scores improve if golfers had more choices of where to play? How about a tax credit to help folks pay the greens fee at their country club?