The government school monopoly as reverse patronage program


Greg Forster, Ph.D. | August 8, 2019

The government school monopoly as reverse patronage program

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

One of the key challenges for education reformers is the huge size of the government school monopoly as a “reverse patronage” employer. The power of entrenched education special interests is not only, or even primarily, in the money collected through such means as union dues. The single greatest political obstacle to education reform is the large number of people who get their jobs from the status quo, and will therefore show up during elections to vote and volunteer for politicians who will protect the status quo.

Ask lawmakers who vote against school choice for their reasons. In public, you’ll get boilerplate talking points written by the special interests. But if you can get them to talk candidly in private—which does happen—the most common reason you’ll hear is “the superintendents in my district are against it.”

It’s not surprising that superintendents, and other spokespeople for the government school monopoly, would spend time lobbying legislators. But why do they have this kind of influence over them? Legislators don’t just do whatever they’re lobbied to do. They listen to some lobbyists and not others, and they have reasons for those choices.

It’s not because of any mystique that educators are special guardians of children’s interests. There was, indeed, a day when legislators really felt they had to defer to the judgment of educators—or rather, those who claim to speak for educators—because, after all, educators know best what the kids in our schools need. Even if the legislators themselves didn’t buy into this mystique, most of their constituents did, and that mattered. But those days are over. Those who claim to speak for educators have long since been revealed to everybody as a special interest out for their own gain.

But spokespeople for the government school monopoly still have a great deal of influence as major employers. Every smart legislator finds out who the big employers in their district are and pays close attention to their concerns. This isn’t primarily about seeking to please the employers in hopes of getting their campaign donations (although it is that, too); it’s primarily about seeking to please the employees in hopes of getting their votes. And in virtually every legislative district in the United States, one of the biggest local employers is the government school monopoly.

This system gives us what we might call “reverse patronage.” In the 19th century, under the patronage system, hiring and firing in most government jobs was directly controlled by political officeholders. Politicians in each party would hire their party’s people to staff the government from top to bottom. (On one famous occasion, Abraham Lincoln kept his Civil War generals waiting while he attended to more important business: deciding which party faction to give control of a Post Office appointment.) Each change of party would bring massive turnover. This was also called the “spoils system” because government jobs were like the spoils of war for whoever won the election. 

It’s not hard to see why we got rid of patronage. But at least it was transparent and evenhanded. Nobody was under any  illusions about what was going on. Both sides had equal rights to use the system for their own advantage. And when abuses got too far out of hand, there was always a measure of accountability—however attenuated—at the ballot box.

In the government school monopoly, we have a reverse form of patronage. Instead of politicians picking their government employees, government employees pick their politicians. This is far worse, both because it greatly increases the power of special interests to leech money out of the system and because it undermines the only power that imposed even an attenuated form of accountability upon the old patronage—the power to vote the rascals out.

Ask lawmakers who vote against school choice for their reasons. One common reason: "The superintendents in my district are against it."

The worst aspect of reverse patronage may be the fact that it’s concealed from view. It is concealed not only when we compare it to the old patronage system, but also when we compare it to other forms of legislative vote-pandering. Nobody is startled when Florida Senator Marco Rubio, otherwise a stalwart free marketer, defends sugar subsidies. It’s not an edifying spectacle, but it is at least a spectacle, in the sense that it takes place in full public view and we can all see what’s going on. By comparison, the influence that school superintendents across the nation exert over their local legislators is so ubiquitous as to be effectively hidden.

We can’t just wish all this away, so I propose two realistic ways of coping with it: a moral word to legislators and a moral word to reformers. Legislators ought to feel a moral responsibility—and the rest of us ought to remind them if they forget—not to be deceptive about the political realities that constrain their behavior. I think most people feel, as I do, that it would be unrealistic perfectionism to demand that Rubio go on a crusade to abolish sugar subsidies. But we can also be grateful that for the most part he has the grace not to go around spouting moralistic talking points written for him by the sugar lobby, claiming to be ethically superior because he protects poor Big Sugar against the cruel exploitation of selfish taxpayers. And to the extent that he sometimes does, I think the rest of us are justified in knocking him off that high horse.

The other is a word to reformers about the moral virtue of prudence. Good intentions don’t excuse us from the duty of thinking rationally and responsibly about how we achieve our goals; as C.S. Lewis put it, giving money to a charity is not praiseworthy if you don’t care whether the charity is a fraud. And some prominent education reform efforts in recent years, like the attempt to create national education standards under the banner of Common Core, have been so naïve about the real nature and extent of the government school monopoly’s political influence that they have been comparable to that fraudulent charity. Legislators are not free to just thumb their noses at their superintendents, any more than Rubio is free to just thumb his nose at Big Sugar, and one way or another we reformers are responsible to take that seriously.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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