"What stage of capitalism is this?"
Teachers scrounge dollar bills for school supplies to entertain a crowd
It sounds like something out of an over-the-top dystopian novel: helmeted public school teachers diving into a pile of one-dollar bills before a cheering crowd, hoping to grab enough cash to fund needed improvements in their classrooms.
But on Friday it was real life in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as the first-ever “Dash for Cash” event allowed teachers to compete, Squid Game-style, for literal dollar bills donated by a local mortgage lender.
Local press was on the scene, framing the dehumanizing spectacle as a feel-good story. A reporter for the Argus Leader documented the event from the cash dump to the scramble for the final scraps.
“Put it in their shirt, pants, wherever,” the president of the hockey team told KELO. “They can take as much money as they can grab during the time that we have during the intermission,” he added. Left unspoken: as part of the arrangement the teachers were expected to sell tickets to the game, with some of the proceeds going to their schools. The article praised the team for “helping out $1 bill at a time.”
The intentions here were probably good, if boneheaded: the sponsors probably conceived of the event as a ‘fun’ way to drum up a little publicity and give some money to local schools. No company sets out to be the public face of a degrading, humiliating Hunger Games-style debacle centered on a squabble over $1 bills. But the fact that nobody involved realized that’s exactly what this was is what’s really troubling: decades of under-funding basic public services means that many people don’t bat an eye when teachers have fight for pocket change, or diabetics have to beg for insulin, or childhood cancer patients have to raise money to feed the homeless, or eight-year-olds have to raise money to pay off their classmates’ lunch debts.
South Dakota teacher salaries are among the lowest in the nation. In terms of per-pupil spending they’re in the bottom fifth of the U.S., devoting less than half as much money to each student as some states in the northeast.
For a good long time it was trendy in policy circles, even liberal ones, to take the view that “school spending doesn’t matter.” Teams of economists at conservative policy institutes cranked out paper after paper, year after year, purporting to show that money had no correlation with test scores or student achievement or anything else that mattered, so it was fine to slash public school funds and divert that money to private schools for the wealthy or bombers for the defense industry or tax cuts for billionaires or wherever the nation’s plutocrats wanted it to go at that particular moment.
[Aside: isn’t weird how economists are always running these cost-benefit analyses for things like schools and infrastructure and public assistance, but when it comes to trillions in military spending everyone’s just like “eh, this is probably making us safer, I guess?”]
Thankfully a new crop of economists is breaking free of the profession’s longstanding free market ideology, for the simple reason that so many of the core tenets of that ideology have been proven incorrect, over and over again, by things happening in the real world. School spending is a good case in point: more recent and carefully done research finds that “a 10% increase in per pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school leads to 0.31 more completed years of education, about 7% higher wages, and a 3.2 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.” Out of 13 studies included in a recent review of the literature, 12 showed a “positive, statistically significant relationship between education spending and student outcomes.”
The source for that citation, by the way, is the notorious lefty organization known as “The World Bank.”
Anyway. The South Dakota event is getting absolutely savaged on social media and in the press, so I imagine the sponsors will be releasing some sort of statement of regret soon. But I hope this incident, and others like it, make us all more skeptical of people selling us stories that seek to paper over staggering social failure with feel-good narratives about plucky individuals.