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I was interested in some of the response to a report that the Trump administration was planning on “punishing” states that were slow to distribute their doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Atul Gawande, a member of the Biden coronavirus advisory group attacked the nonlogic of it perfectly.

“Now, punish instead of helping those struggling most.”

I started to wonder where I’d witnessed this phenomenon but didn’t need to wonder very long, because the answer is: education.

Setting schools up for a test that they will not do well on, judging the school as failing and then insisting that there is a better model has been the project of so-called school reformers attempting to privatize our K-12 system over the last 40 or so years. The story is thoroughly and convincingly told by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire in their recently released A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School.

The future these reformers desire is one where we “fund students, not systems.” Rather than viewing these folks as “pro-market,” we should instead be seeing them “anti-institution.” They have no evidence that a market-based system would produce superior outcomes -- in fact, there’s far more evidence to the opposite -- but they’re willing to tear down institutions to test their proposition anyway.

If we’d like a preview of what K-12 education would look like if we go even further toward the “fund students, not systems” model, we can look no further than higher education, where the vast majority of institutions outside the very rarified elite are tuition-dependent, student money keeping the operations going.

The “fund students, not systems” approach in higher ed has led to an ever-increasing share of the costs falling on students and their families while institutions are inexorably hollowed out. With a market driven by prestige, resources accrue where they are least needed, while institutions attempting to do the heaviest lift of helping lower-income students are threatened with further reduction in dollars through “performance-based” funding.

As fellow Inside Higher Ed blogger Matt Reed has pointed out on numerous occasions, this makes no earthly sense. As he says, “Underfunding colleges, and then punishing them for the logical outcome of underfunding, is just sadism.”

Sadism that is so common and long-standing that it has become utterly unremarkable.

One effect of the pandemic and other recent events has been the way it has put long-standing structural problems in stark relief.

For example, when sociologist Jessica Calarco remarked to Anne Helen Petersen that “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women,” the lightbulb goes off with the intensity of a klieg light. Women are being burdened with a greater share of the increased childcare and homeschooling, even as they are more likely to be losing their jobs and income. Rather than building a social safety net, we’ve created a culture where women are expected to “do it all,” and then some. When crisis hits, they are the first shock absorber.

The common thread between these problems is a failure to treat these issues as ones involving “infrastructure.”

I’ve said it a gazillion times and I’ll keep saying it, education is infrastructure. Education has the same broad-based societal benefits as our roads, bridges, utilities, parks and everything else we need for society to operate as a collective.

As we’re seeing with the difficulties around distributing the vaccine, add public health to the list, another area that had been allowed to degrade where we are now paying a terrible price. In this case, it seems obvious that punishing the less resourced when the stakes are so high is foolish.

Treating education as infrastructure became less popular as more people -- women, minorities, lower-income students -- were provided access to it. It was just fine to use tax dollars to pay for higher education when the benefits were accruing to the people who have traditionally been in charge of things. Once the doors were cracked open, some folks got busy finding ways to restrict access to those who can pay for it, kicking off the spiraling decline we find ourselves in.

As I argue in Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, we can choose differently.

At this point, I would say we have to choose differently.

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