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Liberty for Some vs. Justice for All

May 01, 2012 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

The past few years have taught us a lot about elected conservatives. From the federal government down, we've seen the modern conservative philosophy of governance in action. Wrapped in the rhetoric of freedom, conservative politics has really been about liberty for some, and it's time for progressives to make politics about justice for all.

Conservatives in Congress and Minnesota's state government have made it very clear that, if they can't govern, nobody will. We've seen conservatives orchestrate dysfunction, abuse the filibuster, and shut down governments when they can't get their way. Compromise is not an option for conservatives, unless it's progressives doing the compromising.

And what are the noble principles that drive this tantrum-like behavior? We need only look across the border to Wisconsin to find out. Given control of an entire state government, conservatives strip workers' rights, push to expand school vouchers, and remove equal pay protections for women and other groups. All this they do in the name of liberty, but that liberty only applies to some. In a conservative-governed society, white male employers have plenty of liberty. Everybody else, not so much.

Consider education. Today's conservatives don't seem to think public education should exist. Instead, they want it turned over to privately run schools contracting with privately run technology and testing companies. If they can't get that, they'll do what they can to get close: more charter schools, regardless of quality (until they can pass vouchers); mandatory online courses in high school; and always, always, always more testing. This is justified as increasing “freedom” for parents and those who run schools.

What it actually does is create a more chaotic school “marketplace,” narrow curricula, and undermine teachers. The people who actually gain freedom from this set of approaches are the rich (best positioned to navigate uncertain “school choice” options), the companies that specialize in testing and edu-tech, and the people looking to become profiteers in a privatized education system.

Lower income families get the “freedom” to pick which underfunded school they send their children to. Teachers get the “freedom” to hunt for the least abusive school environment. Children get the “freedom” to learn from a less experienced teaching corps, as veterans retire and novices leave for better pastures. That's what conservative “liberty” means in education.

Let's consider an alternative. Instead of conservative “liberty for some,” let's look at progressive “justice for all.”

Under a government that valued justice for all, we would see better funding for our schools (not the inflation-driven cuts of the Pawlenty administration). We would see the state ease the burden of communities that don't have the property wealth to independently support their schools. We would see teachers paid salaries that actually reflect the difficulty of the job. We would see schools with enough resources to shrink class sizes and increase the time available to teachers to give students the high-quality feedback they deserve.

We would see a robust early childhood system with the tools and staff it needs to help prepare children socially, emotionally, and cognitively for kindergarten. We would see diverse approaches to K-12 education, not competing but rather collaborating within a single system that actively helps families find the right schools for their children. We would see a statewide university and college system with tuition rates reasonable enough that all students have a fair and affordable shot at higher education. This is a system that doesn't abandon children or families to an inequitable marketplace; instead, it actively seeks to graduate students on a more level playing field.

We can no longer afford to grant control of our society to the rich and powerful. Justice for all means liberty for more than just a few. Taking away an employer's liberty to abuse their employees is not only more just, it is also liberating for those workers. Adequately funding an education system that provides multiple routes to success won't simply produce more just outcomes, it will give its graduates more freedom in finding employment and lifelong satisfaction.

It's time to stop granting elected conservatives' premise that they're fighting for liberty for all. They only want liberty for some people, and usually the people who will do just fine for themselves no matter who's in charge. It's time to speak up for those who won't always be fine. It's time to fight for justice for all.

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