Tuesday, March 26, 2013
I’d like to discuss the word accountability. It’s an interesting word that has been inflated to the point that it can mean almost anything. It’s like the phrase “moving forward.” Or another abused word, “reform.”
Let’s take the word “reform” first. It’s an innocent-looking word. But you can tell that the word has been corrupted when it represents the opposite of what you’d think it would mean.
For instance, education reform means “returning to the factory model of public schooling, where students are consumers of industrial-strength doses of testing and corporate curricula.” Pension reform means “taking money from someone else’s pension fund.” Financial reform means “business as usual.”
The word is used in a similar way in tax reform, which means that “the richest people will pay less and the workers will pay more.” Why else did the Oregon Legislature convene a special session in December of last year to ensure tax breaks for Phil Knight and Nike?
The word accountability has deep links to financial management and fiscal responsibility, to moral obligation and professional ethics. To be accountable was once something to be proud of. But look who now wants to place the noose of accountability somewhere else:
“Teachers must be accountable for student learning.”
This is clear in everything but what it doesn’t say. Certain people get off the hook. In fact, everyone who isn’t a teacher is off the hook. Mr. Knight doesn’t have to promise to expand Nike; only that he won’t move to expand. The legislature doesn’t have to be accountable for a fairer tax system or to fund its obligations. In effect, the accountability is all on the side of the public, or in this case, the teachers, and none on the side of Mr. Knight and his friends in the legislature.
If we take my previous example, “Teachers must be accountable for student learning,” then we agree that Mr. Knight is not accountable for removing revenue from the support of these same children. We don’t need to be concerned about the lack of a safety net that means 20 percent of children in Oregon live in poverty. Or that the Oregon legislature would rather give corporate tax breaks than raise the revenue necessary to fund schools.
So when there’s not enough revenue to make up the difference, teachers should pony up. They have a pension fund (let’s raid that). Contractual obligations, notwithstanding, it’s much easier to sell the idea that PERS is a massive entitlement than ask Mr. Knight to pay his share.
Mr. Knight, of course, has his retirement taken care of, thanks, in part to Gov. Kitzhaber and the Oregon Legislature, and the rest of us make up the difference or suffer.
George Orwell in his essay, “Politics and the English Language (1946) said, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
Which brings me back to the word accountability: Who can we stick with that?
Mark Reynolds teaches English at Hood River Valley High School.