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After We Vote, the Winners Get a Giant Mess

There is an election today and the polls are still open. But note that these elections were once far less apocalyptic in tone.

The 1920 presidential election, for instance, featured Warren Harding versus James M. Cox for all the presidential marbles, such as they were in those days. Cox survived a grueling contest against William Gibbs McAdoo and A. Mitchell Palmer to win the nomination of the Democratic Party on the 44th ballot.

If you haven’t heard of most of these people, don’t feel bad; you simply are engaging in rational ignorance. Harding defeated Cox and then died. He was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge famously did and said very little as the nation’s economy boomed.

Presidential races were delightfully inconsequential back then compared to the modern end-of-days version where both major parties urgently assure us that tout est perdu if the other side wins. In reality, life goes on until the next Ragnarök election, and then the next. Some catastrophic policy mistakes made starting with Coolidge’s successor, however, are eerily reminiscent of the current K-12 calamity.

On the one hand, modern elections seem overblown. Matthew Ridley made the case in the Rational Optimist that one struggles to find a 10-year period of American life in which material conditions failed to improve despite our political follies. Take, for instance, the Great Depression, an era in which a bipartisan group of federally alleged Olympians made a whole series of catastrophic policy mistakes, including but not limited to the Republican Hoover Administration starting a global trade war.

The Federal Reserve tightened the money supply during the early years of the downturn. In addition, the non-stop administrative antics of the Democratic Roosevelt administration created enormous political and economic uncertainty. The country had experienced plenty of stock market crashes and downturns, but a decade-plus long depression? That took some truly misguided effort.

Sometimes the words “we’ve got to do something” can be the most dangerous phrase in the English language.

There was a lot of suffering due to these mistakes. Nevertheless, due to the normal improvement process of people grinding on problems and tinkering with products/services the average American was wealthier at the end of the 1930s than the beginning. Today, the average American lives far better than the richest person on the planet in 1920 in many aspects.

Education, however, has lacked a decentralized process whereby results continually improve, and thus stands out as a sore thumb against an overall trend of societal improvement. A tangled web of federal, state and local rules governs educators in an effort to standardize schools and outcomes. School district democracy is marked by low voter turnout, and thus high vulnerability to regulatory capture.

Spending was going up and scores down before the pandemic, and the pandemic has introduced a whole host of new problems.

Federal officials won’t be able to fix much of this regardless of who wins. The states face an enormous revenue shortfall, students have acquired learning gaps we are only beginning to measure, and an estimated 6% of students have received no instruction since the spring shutdowns. Women are leaving the workforce in unprecedented numbers which is going to hurt both family and government finances. White students currently have twice as much access to in-person instruction as students of color.

Never mind Baby Boomer teacher retirement; under typical state retirement rules, many Gen-X teachers are eligible to retire. Take, for instance, a teacher born in 1967 who began teaching in 1990. Under a “rule of 80” this now 53-year-old teacher with 30 years of experience became eligible for the typical state pension years ago. This wouldn’t be as much as a problem if college students were flocking into education training, but they have been shunning it.

This also would be less of a problem if the typical state retirement system had been properly capitalized, but it hasn’t.

A grand mess awaits whoever wins today, so good luck to them. The task of recovering from our education troubles and leading a broad reimagining of an antiquated K-12 system will primarily fall on our state and local leaders.

Keep them in your prayers, and God bless America.

A slightly different version of this piece first ran here at RedefinED.

What Do You Think?
Matthew Ladner
Matthew Ladner is executive editor of redefinED. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.

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