A Public Sense of Duty

Each New Year we renew our hope in the future, but have we lost our sense of duty to the future? Following World War 2, the U.S. and Russia engaged in a protracted Cold War of competing ideologies. We fought proxy wars in Vietnam and Indochina, South and Central America. Instrumental to the battle against Communism, America invested in our children’s education.

In 1978, the homeowners of California revolted against the rising property taxes that funded public schools. Since then, our per capita spending on children and young adults has steadily declined.

China’s spending on education has risen dramatically in the past two decades but it still lags the U.S. in spending as a percent of GDP. For how long? Do Americans have the “fire in the belly,” that focused desire to best the enemy, that we did seventy years ago?

In our technological society, the level of education of one’s parents has become a class distinction. The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) reports that 80% of low-income families are headed by parents without a high school diploma. With a high school diploma, kids still have a 60% probability of being born into a low-income family (NCCP, 2021).

A child born in a middle-class suburb will receive a better education than one born in a poor neighborhood, where many residents are renters. Property taxes fund public schools, but landlords don’t live in those neighborhoods and want low property taxes. They have an influential voice in local politics.

Two years ago, I wrote about the post-war surge in college degrees (Stofka, 2018). Before WW2, only 5% of children earned college degrees; more than a third of children now earn college degrees (NCES, 1993). Is our society paying for that learning and experience? Despite their educational skills, teachers in charter schools make the same $53K average as all employees in private industry (NCES, 2020, Table 5). The pay in charter schools is 15% less than public schools (Table 5); that may explain the much higher ratio of black and Hispanic teachers in charter schools (Table 1).

An NCES survey in 2003-4 showed a national student teacher ratio of almost 15. The ratio in a 2018 survey was 21 students per teacher (NCES, 2020). Our educational system is asking our teachers to do more, to have a bigger and more expensive skill set, but does not pay them for their talent and hard work.

Construction workers average $63K per year, higher than public school teachers (BLS Series CES2000000011). 50% of teachers in traditional public schools have a master’s degree, in charter schools it is 39% (Table 4). Do half of all construction workers have a master’s degree? No, of course not. Why does our society value a painter or a carpenter more than a public-school teacher?

Construction workers provide mostly private goods, where private parties benefit from their work. Teachers provide public goods; the immediate benefit is only to the parents of the children in school. The provisioning of public goods and the caretaking of natural resources are only possible when a community has a sense of public duty. Has it declined in the past few decades?

Americans once built a sense of community in opposition to the common enemy of Communism. Covid-19 might have been that common enemy; it has highlighted just how fractured our society is. The common enemy is us, our neighbors, our professionals, and institutions.

The erosion of trust began in the 1960s but culminated in the financial crisis a decade ago. We learned that our institutions were run by pirates, whose duty was chiefly to other pirates, the elites who knew how to work the system. Under President Obama, Attorney-General Eric Holder did not want to waste public money on prosecuting financial crimes when there was a small chance of conviction. Neither he nor Mr. Obama understood the damage of that policy. The American people watched as the pirates were let off with a slap on the hand. Washington was awash with scoundrels.

In 2016, Americans elected an outsider, a pirate in the real estate industry who pledged to rid Washington of pirates. The Trump administration proved to be little more than a carousel of pirates. The Senate, in a shambles under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, held few confirmation hearings for department chiefs. Why bother? Most had temporary titles as acting heads of departments and agencies for a few months before another Twitter outrage from the pirate in chief tossed them overboard.

President-elect Joe Biden can avoid the policies of the Trump administration that so undermined the trust of the American people, but can he avoid those policies of the Obama administration which caused many Americans to abandon any hope for fairness in Federal policy? When public trust and public duty are so greatly diminished, the country declines – its spirit, its institutions and its infrastructure. Will we – can we – recapture that sense of public duty?

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Photo by Dan Russo on Unsplash

NCCP. (2021). United States Demographics of Low-Income Children. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://www.nccp.org/demographic/?state=US

NCES. (1993, January). 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf#page=17

NCES. (2020, September). Characteristics of Public and Private Elementary and Secondary School Teachers in the United States. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2020/2020142rev.pdf

Stofka, S. (2018, June 12). Study Dollars. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://innocentinvestor.com/2018/06/10/study-dollars/

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