Monday, December 19, 2011

Lobbying and Education

So I recently saw the above video of Stand for Children CEO Jonah Edelman discussing the process and strategy of pushing education legislation in Illinois (comments for which he subsequently apologized) and I, as I think were a lot of people, was dismayed. It may just be a factor of the truism that in policy-making as in sausage-making, it's never easy to see the process, but my initial reaction was to be repelled by how much this seemed like a clear instance of moneyed interests bullying the legislative process. And I haven't really changed my mind on that fact. It certainly is a clear example of how money and lobbying influences politics. But, I think it might be easy to take from this (and I have little doubt that many did) that this is a clear sign of the corrupt, corporate nature of reform movement, and that's not the right conclusion.

Instead, what I think we're seeing is not anything particular to the reform movement but is instead just the nature of current system of funding elections and the lobbying that has grown up as a result of that system. Maybe you could accuse Stand of playing that game more cunningly than the unions on the other side, but it's important to recognize that they're not playing a different game. Indeed, teachers unions are one of the biggest powerhouses in this game. from the Center for Responsive Politics has put together a list of "Heavy Hitters" or the biggest donors to political campaigns over the years 1988-2012 and the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), rank 6 and 11 on that list, respectively.

I've recently been very caught up in the work of Larry Lessig on campaign finance. He has a new book out, called Republic, Lost. His work is well worth your time (see links below) and his basic thesis is that the influence of lobbyists, which demands both the attention and time of our congress (with, he says, senators and representatives spending between 30% and 70% of their time fundraising), is the root issue facing our nation (and distorting our policies) today. He certainly has me convinced, and I think most people react the way they do to instances like the one in the video because of how intuitively misguided this type of undue influence feels. What we see is not our legislators engaging in a sober, rational investigation of the best course of action to promote a healthy and thriving society, but rather a process dictated by forming alliances based on campaign contributions and personal vendettas (often connected to leglisators' follow-through, or lack thereof, with advancing the interests of interest groups, which is expected implicitly with every contribution given). As Lessig says, quoting John Edwards, in an appearance on Reason.TV, there's a big difference between making an argument to a jury and passing out $100 bills to the jurors. Because we all sense that so easily, we quickly recoil when we see the latter happening in our legislative process. And rightfully so.

What is perhaps most interesting about this process, though, is how it affects education in ways you might not even expect. Take for example this article from Slate describing the influence of lobbyists for King's Dominion Theme Park in Virginia in creating a law to prevent schools in Virginia from opening before labor day. Why you ask?:
It seems that since 1986, a Virginia law has barred schools from opening before Labor Day because it’s bad for the amusement park industry...The Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents Kings Dominion and other amusement parks, contends that shortening the summer tourism season “would forgo spending by about $274 million and decrease wages and benefits by about $104 million.” Last week the director of government affairs for the Association, Katie Hellbbush, clarified that "We’ve never seen any kind of difference in academic achievement in terms of starting before Labor Day. But studies have shown a distinct change in tourism."
While Hellbbush may have a point that the difference between August 22 and September 8 may be no big deal, this fails to recognize the huge difference that is seen between schools that extend the school year by more considerable margins (especially in low income communities) and schools that maintain the regular-length school year. And as the battle to change the norm of school-year length on a broader scale continues, it's unnerving to discover the influence of such a seemingly petty thing as the well-being of amusement parks. 

Lessig links:
Repulic, Lost in video form
Daily Show Interview: Part 1 Part 2
Good Soul Corruption: Part 1 Part 2
His new blog.

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