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Thomas Jefferson advocated for public schools and small government. Previous columns I’ve written included his reasoning behind the quaint notion that an aware and somewhat learned populace tended to make better decisions for the country.

Unfortunately, that ideal has been overwhelmed by another human frailty, the bureaucracy.

The dictionary defines bureaucracy as: "Excessive multiplication of, and concentration of power in administrative bureaus."

Each layer of bureaucracy is populated with — what else? — bureaucrats who administer that layer. So, why does this obvious inefficiency keep showing up like some petri dish culture in every form of "modern" and ancient society?

I think the answer is accountability.

A person who desires or is given real power wants to preserve that power at all costs.  That is a normal human characteristic. This powerful person knows that he or she can be brought down by any number of things, some of which may even be justified. So, what does the highest level bureaucrat do? He or she insulates him or herself from the critics by making another layer of administration to absorb the slings and arrows of bad management or foolish political decisions.

In keeping with the paradox that is Jefferson, his desire for small government and public education together were at odds. He didn’t know that in the 19th century, of course, because public education had just begun to grow. As public schools grew, new layers of bureaucracies were laid on until the thickness of the strata reached at least 10 basic layers between the school teacher and the president of the United States.

Within each layer are many departments, agencies and formal committees all "committed" to educating our children. So for each teacher, we probably have 30-50 bureaucrats in government at every level deciding what to do about education quality, curriculum, teacher "accountability," testing, technology, buildings, books, media, public relations, etc. So much for the concept of small government — at least as far as public education is concerned.

Some self-ordained political geniuses have tried to eliminate the top layers of the education bureaucracy by eliminating the cabinet position and the department it led.  Upon further review, the lower-level bureaucrats, having done a particularly wonderful job at preserving their own insulation from scrutiny, screamed bloody murder and nothing came of it. These "suggestions" were made by the Reagan Administration and by that intellectual dwarf, Newt Gingrich.

They got it wrong for the wrong reasons. They wanted to shunt the money away from public education into the hands of their rich friends to turn our educational system into a tool for the industrialists. This happened once before in the 1920s and was found to be more harmful to our children and society than could be morally tolerated. It still is.

What should be done is a peeling away of bureaucratic layers from the core issue of educating our children so they can be competitive in the global economy.

The quaint and outdated notions that states should control their own curriculum, testing, book selection, etc., just adds more layers to the onion. Every nation of the 20 or so that are out-achieving our kids in schools have a national curriculum. Every one of those nations have strong teachers’ unions and pay their teachers professional salaries equivalent to their other equally educated professionals.

They recruit the top academics from universities to teach children. They pay for their top recruits’ education to become effective teachers instead of burying them in debt.

Why aren’t we considering any of those things?

Oh. Right. That’s socialism and everybody knows how terrible that is. It is clear to me those people who throw the word socialism around have no understanding of its definition, its responsible application in every democracy that is successful nor how some of that socialism made our country great once upon a time. Every time we’ve tried to rid ourselves of making government work for the greater good instead of the privileged few, we have created a mess.

That’s the garbage in, garbage out concept.

The garbage in is the growth of inefficient bureaucracies and the garbage out is the inaction and mistakes that make a great nation mediocre.

 

Turner is a retired teacher and industrial engineer who lives near Marble Falls. He is an independent columnist, not a staff member, and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Tribune or its parent company.