THE BLOG

All Political Truth Is Local

09/17/2012 10:35 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2012
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Home truths about great political matters can at times be found on your doorstep. So it was when I picked up the Austin Statesman one morning last week. There was a headlined front-page story revealing that five Gulf Coast states were preparing a joint submission to the Obama administration for a $320 billion program. It is designed to restore the ecological stability of the coastline in the name of long-term economic need. Composed of a private-public partnership of worthy citizens, it has received the bipartisan backing of Governors Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Robert Bentley, Phil Bryant and Rick Scott -- all Republicans who are vehement critics of federal intervention in state affairs, of mounting deficits, of environmental regulation from Washington.

Texas authorities are currently waging a multi-pronged legal war against a wide variety of obligations imposed on them by one agency or another. Rick Perry went so far as to threaten secession from the oppressive Union a couple of years back. Now, they calmly and unapologetically are slipping under the doors of long vilified federal departments a funding request that entails a huge outlay in their parochial state interests.

There is nothing new about this, of course. The interior West and the South, hotbeds of rabid anti-Washington invective, were built with money critically provided by Washington. From land grants, to dam and electrification projects, to vast water projects, to costly defense and space facilities, those states have sucked at the teat of Washington -- to use a phrase dear to the heart of Alan Simpson. Those five Gulf states in particular receive considerably more dollars from the federal government than they pay in taxes. It's been like that forever. Moreover, the Northeast and California absorbed millions of poor refugees from the South fleeing racism and economic backwardness over the span of six decades from 1910 to 1970.

To add to the hypocrisy, the ecological damage they want Washington to put right was caused by practices that, for the most part, favored special interests while ignoring warnings about the harm being done to the collective well-being of their citizens. Those with their hands on the levers of power instead loudly condemned the imposition on states rights by pointed headed bureaucrats in Washington. For the energy interests, all manner of environmental controls were kept in abeyance, coastal development for ports and refineries given subventions, infrastructure built that destroyed wetlands and eroded the Mississippi delta -- even as they extracted lavish tax breaks. For real estate developers, the way was always paved by state and local officials ever ready to extend a favor in return for political and personal support. Throughout the region, the public interest has always been subordinated to the private interests of fat cat wheeler-dealers.

Yes, some small folk are also badly hit by the disruption of the Gulf Coast's natural systems: shrimpers, restaurant and motel managers, the bayou folk. It is not their plight, though, that is moving the movers and shakers to swallow their anti-Washington rhetoric to demand that the feds open the spending spigot on their behalf. Let's remember that after Katrina, the first big slice of federal money was channeled to Mississippi where Governor Haley Barbour connived to ensure that the casinos would be quickly rebuilt along with prime beachfront properties of former Senator Trent Lott and his neighbors.

In the meantime, the poor of New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward and adjacent neighborhoods (125,000 or so) were scattered like chaff to the four winds, much of their property declared unsalvageable and unfit for rebuilding, and the political complexion of Louisiana changed in a way that suits the interests of today's Republican elite.

The Statesman that day carried another story that highlights a major, highly contentious issue -- the nation's public schools. Teachers especially are being targeted as the main cause of why educational attainment is unsatisfactory. The charge has been led and legitimized by the White House.

President Obama and his hand-picked Secretary of Education Arne Duncan never miss an opportunity to attack "teachers' privileges" and their alleged failure to do their job effectively and conscientiously. They use harsh language never heard when the subject is Wall Street financial barons, the health care industry profiteers or Big Pharma.

Obama's former Rasputin and fellow Chicagoan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is at this moment doing his utmost to break the city's teachers union so as to pave the way for remaking Chicago schools in line with corporate standards of efficiency. Everywhere, it is open season on teachers for politicians, pundits, local school authorities, and the cottage industry of would-be school "reformers." In the crosshairs are teachers unions and big city public education systems generally.

The fiscal crisis has added a financial edge to the assault insofar as firing teachers, denying them stability of employment, abrogating pensions, and cutting "wasteful" spending saves money for long mismanaged municipalities and states. Central to the campaign is the trendy idea of charter schools as the salvation; this despite the ample evidence that overall their students perform somewhat worse than public school students despite all the special resources they receive and their shunning of problem kids.

Well, here in Austin, Texas, we learn of an elementary school that stands out for exceptional accomplishment. Graham Elementary School is literally on the other side of the tracks -- which in Austin means the other side of I-35. Students are from poor families, the large majority of which have incomes below the poverty line. 97% are Hispanic or black. Yet Graham earned "exemplary" status on the state's 2011 report card. Graham Elementary has been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, i.e. Arne Duncan's Department of Education. As the Statesman editorial recounts: "That is a notable achievement that puts Graham in an elite group: Just 18 schools in Texas and 269 schools across the nation were named National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2012 based on their overall academic excellence." Graham will be honored in a special ceremony in Washington come November.

How did this miracle happen? Surely, Graham must be a charter school -- run by some sectarian group, some enterprising education entrepreneurs, some highly motivated private sector operative. It must be getting generous resources and customized, hands-on treatment from a special corps of talented specialists. Quite the opposite. It is an Austin public school, staffed by city employees who have seen no alteration in their status and led by a dedicated principal. Its curriculum and learning methods are pretty much conventional.

Graham is a timely reminder that the public schools derided by so many, educated and socialized hundreds of millions. The truth that conveniently is erased from memory is that those schools, more than any other institution, made the America we celebrate.

What lessons has the city of Austin drawn from this striking experience? It has recently recommitted itself to more charter schools, closed a few public schools over the opposition of parents, and is responding sympathetically to the demand of one charter school outfit that the city guarantee it a handsome profit.

Texas will vote overwhelmingly for the Romney-Ryan ticket -- as will at least three of its fellow petitioners -- while railing against socialism and Washington's tyranny. Austin will continue to follow the latest in educational fashion.