National Public Education

Homeschooling and Truancy

Secretary of Education John King

John King, the new Secretary of Education, recently said that he had some reservations about the value of homeschooling.  He commented that he felt that these students did not have the “range of options” that were best for all students, and that they sometimes did not get the kind of “rapid instructional experience” that students in schools received.  (I gather he means that home-schooled students often are allowed to learn at their own pace, so do not practice the ability to learn quickly very often.)  As always, these comments brought forth outrage from the fans of homeschooling, who point out how well home-schooled students do on academic tests and the like.

Readers of this column will know that I find both sides of this argument problematic. Secretary King may be right or wrong on the educational experience of home-schooled students, but that is not the main problem with homeschooling.  As I have discussed recently concerning Charters, the issue with these government-supported semi-private schemes is not the success of failure of the individual students, but the overall success of the public program.  Looking just at how well students do on tests or other aspects of their education would be like looking just at the individual success of some baseball players on a team.  That they may be doing well is not the same as whether the team is doing well.  It is quite possible that you can have a star player on a weak team, or vice versa.  What we want to know in public education policy is whether the entire program is succeeding or not, since that is what we are paying for, not just whether some students are doing well.

A good way to approach the topic of how we should determine that overall success of the public school system is to think back to other laws that we set up over the years to regulate the schools, such as the truancy laws.  Every state has had rules and regulations about the compulsory nature of public education for quite a while.  When I was a child I remember being told that the truant officer would catch me if I played hooky and would bring me back to school or even to jail, and when I first started teaching I knew of several families that were frequently in trouble with the local truant authorities.  Punishments often involved fines, the loss of the student’s driver’s license, and referrals to juvenile court.

Why do we have such laws?  Clearly it is because the goal of the school system is not just to teach some students well, but to teach them all well.  That is the only way we are going to create a better society, and that is the ultimate goal of the entire school system.  The reason everyone, not just the parents of school-age children, pays for the schools is that we all benefit from this program through its effect on such matters as crime, health and worker productivity.  As I never tire of saying, public education is not just about the education of the students, but the effect of that education on the population in general, the ones who are paying for it.  To measure that effect you clearly have to look at all the children, not just the ones in school.  You have to count the ones not in school, too.  So it only makes sense to try to get everyone into school so you can maximize the good educational outcomes.  Hence we have laws that require everyone to attend school.

In the past, then, we seem to have fully understood that the goal of public school is not just good test scores for individuals, but the overall effect of the program on our society.  The truancy laws demonstrate that we once understood these fundamental attributes of public education.  What has happened today, though, is that we seem to have forgotten this.  We now argue only about those test scores, or other aspects of the learning experience, and ignore the public benefit that we ought to be worried about.

There is no doubt that home schooling is very similar to truancy.  True, it is a form of truancy that is now acceptable in many states, but it is still essentially the same as the truancy of years past.  When I would talk with parents who kept their kids home 40 years ago they would say the same things that home-schooling parents say today – that their kids do better at home.  Why, then, is this acceptable now but wasn’t then?

You cannot argue that it is acceptable now because the results for each child are better.  That’s like saying that certain players on a team are doing well; it doesn’t address the overall success of the team or the program.  That certain individuals do well can never be the reason we adopt a public program.  If it’s public, it has to be judged by its effect on the entire population; that’s who is paying for it, so that’s who has to benefit from it.  The question should not be how those home-schooled students are doing; it should be how all the other students are doing.  That’s the question that public education seeks to answer.

Just to clarify – I have no problem with families wanting to educate their children outside of the public school system.  They are free to choose this.  We have to accept, though, that this means they are choosing a private system of education.  That’s their whole point.  It’s their own private needs that they are satisfying.  There is nothing public about it.  There are many good private schools, and you can even start one yourself if you comply with the usual regulations for a private school.  There is nothing wrong with educating one’s own children in a private way.

The problem is that the states have then turned around and said that these private arrangements ought to be funded by the public school system.  They are using public money to support a non-public program;  a program that not only does not contribute in any way to the success of the public schools, but which actually undermines the success of that system, as the truancy laws have long pointed out.  Taking students out of the public school system does not necessarily harm the students, but it does always harm the public who is paying for that system.  It lessens the societal benefits from that system, and these benefits are at the core of the reasons we have a public school system in the first place.

So, much as I agree with Secretary King on most matters, I would like him look at bit more deeply into public support for homeschooling.  It doesn’t make sense, regardless of how successful it may be for the students involved.  It doesn’t work as a public program.

Peter Dodington

September 24, 2016



Post-Logical School Reform

I read an interesting article the other day by Paul E. Peterson entitled “Post-Regulatory School Reform” (Harvard Magazine, Sept./ Oct., 2016, pp. 37-43).   Peterson argues that federal “top-down” regulations, through such programs as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the current Every Student Succeeds Act, have failed to improve the schools and so should be abandoned in favor of local initiatives based on “choice” such as vouchers and charter schools.  He gives a lengthy history of the failures of various federal programs initiated by presidents Bush and Obama and the corresponding growth of these alternative programs.

He argues, for example, that the schools in Philadelphia received a sizable amount of federal aid in the early years of the 21st century but put this money into things like teacher’s salaries that did little to improve student performance.  And, of course, the failures of the NCLB are well known.  As he says, the stated goal of all children making “adequate progress” by 2014 was “never meant to be taken seriously.”  In the end almost all these federal initiatives were abandoned and the programs turned back over to the states.

If there is to be reform now, Peterson says, “it will happen because more competition is being introduced into the American education system” through vouchers and charters that “catalyze” competition.  These approaches are growing steadily and enjoy strong support from a majority of Americans, particularly Blacks and Hispanics.  It is only “teachers and their unions” who are strongly opposed.  Charters currently enroll only about 6% of the school-age population, but Peterson feels they will soon reach a “tipping point” that will “force a reconstruction of the educational system more generally.” No matter what, he says, “reforming the system from within is unlikely to succeed.”  We are entering an age of “post-regulatory” school reform.

What is most interesting to me, in all of this, is how such seemingly authoritative and high-ranking figures can be so apparently clueless about the basic parameters of the topic they are addressing.  Peterson ignores the most fundamental aspects of the public programs he wants to reform, attributes that one can find explained in any elementary textbook on public policy.

Take the issue of the “regulation” of a public program.  Can you have an “un-regulated” public program?  Could you have a fire department, for example, where each resident was allowed to choose for himself the kind of fire protection he wanted?  Wouldn’t that just be a private program, then?  Isn’t the whole point of a public program that you collectively solve a social problem by agreeing on some joint, collective action, and that the only way to implement this collective action has to involve some kind of “top-down regulation”?  How else would you ever get what you agreed on to actually take place?  You can't just let everyone do what they want -- it's a joint project.  Yes, there are “regulations,” but ones that you have all, jointly, agreed to.  That’s different from the top-down regulation of a private enterprise by some outside agency.

We have public programs in various areas, such as those that concern fires, crimes, disease, and education, where the outcome for an individual has an effect on the rest of the population – the fires spread, the crimes multiply, the educated child produces a higher standard of living for everyone.  We don’t have public schools because we like government-run institutions; we have them because they fit the task we want solved.  See Milton Friedman, of all people, (in his chapter on education in Capitalism and Freedom) on the necessity for government “intervention” in education, since it benefits the entire population, not just the families involved, and so should be paid for through a government tax paid by everyone.  If you don’t like government regulation of schools, fine, you can send your child to a private school, but once you agree to public funding and support, you also have to agree to collective public policies that, by definition, have to be implemented through top-down regulations.

Peterson also inflates the federal regulatory role in our current decentralized school system.  In his comments about the Philadelphia school system, he argues that the federal government failed to improve the schools when they gave them extra money.  But it was not Washington that decided to raise those teachers’ salaries.  How could they?  We have a constitutional restriction on federal interference in public education.  Yes, there are federal regulations on how schools should deal with federal funds, but overall school policy is still a state and local concern.  Those federal regulations did not determine how the schools would be run; that was a state and local decision.

And let’s look at the topic of “competition.”  Economists have known for a long time that competition doesn’t work for public programs.  These programs do not function according to the same market forces that affect private businesses.  As any economics textbook will tell you, competition only works where the “exclusion principle” applies, that is, where “A’s consumption is made contingent on A’s paying the price, while B, who does not pay, is excluded” (Musgrave and Musgrave, Public Finance in Theory and Practice, 1973, p. 55).  This cannot happen in a public program, since, by definition, the program is used by everyone and paid for by everyone.  There is no point in making a second fire department complete with the first, since everyone would be paying for both programs and so there would be no competition.  So of course we never make two fire departments.  Why, then, should we make two public school programs?

In public education it might make sense to encourage truly private schools to compete with the public system and perhaps show how to do things more efficiently, but that is not what Peterson wants.  It’s another public program that he wants to do the competing, paid for with public funds, as charters and vouchers are.  That doesn’t make sense.  He avers that competition has helped the airline and telecommunications businesses, but these are private businesses.  We don’t have government-run airlines.  In the private realm competition does work, but not in public policy.  There is no such thing as government-supported competition for a government-run program.

Once we accept that a publicly supported program has to involve government regulations of some sort, and is not helped by publicly-funded competition, Peterson’s arguments do not make sense.

Peter Dodington

Sept. 17, 2016



The Right Way to Criticize Charters


Critics of charter schools often try to show how poorly and unfairly charter schools operate.  They accuse them of “creaming” off the best students, or of harsh discipline against minority groups, or of not enrolling enough special ed. kids, or simply of low achievement.  All this may be true or not, but these are not the main reasons to be opposed to charters.  The problem with them is not that they don’t work well as schools, but that they don’t work well as part of a school system.

The first problem with attacking charters as schools is that it often doesn’t work.  As schools they often do quite well, even when they enroll difficult students.  It’s not that hard to do.  Private schools do this all the time.  There are plenty of urban religious schools that do a better job, overall, with the minority population than the traditional public schools.  Most self-respecting principals are quite capable of putting together a staff that can solve just about all the problems even the most low-end students present.  I myself taught at a school in the South Bronx, a regular public school, which took in quite average students, straight off the streets, and got them up to Regents and Advanced Placement success.  It’s by no means impossible for a dedicated group of teachers and parents to solve just about any of the problems of low achievement, special education, and the like.  I admit that some charters do cut corners, and this should be criticized, but overall they don’t usually have to do that in order to succeed.  So if you attack them strictly on the basis of their school characteristics you often do not have much of an argument.

And secondly, once you start attacking charters according to how they run the schools you have ceded half the argument against them.  They want to be considered as legitimate schools, part of the public system but not completely in it.  If you start in on their failings as a school, you are ceding that point to them; you are agreeing that they are a legitimate public school that should be judged accordingly.   But they are not legitimate public schools; that is the problem.

The right way to attack them is to consider their role in the overall school system.  It is their use of public funds for their private use that is wrong.  Look at it this way.  What if charters were fully private schools, funded through their own financial resources such as their parents and alumni?  No one would be complaining.  No one would mind then that they “creamed” off the best students, or dismissed any number of trouble-makers, or did not come up to some average level of student achievement.  That’s what most private schools do.  But charter schools are not private schools.  They don’t use their own money; they use the public’s money; they use our money.  That’s where the problem lies.

The question we have to ask is not “do they solve their own school problems?” but rather “do they solve our school problems?”  It our money, our public program.  How do they contribute to the success of that program?  To put it simply, do they help or hinder the public school program that we are paying for?

Seen from that angle, the answer has to be that they hinder that program.  They are, after all, totally dedicated to turning away from the public school administration, not helping it.  Is there any way that a charter school helps the other schools in the school system?  Their advocates often argue that they do, but none of those views hold water.

They are said to provide “competition” to the public schools.  That’s helping?  It seems more like harming.  And they are said to provide innovative and cutting-edge practices that could improve the educational level of all the schools.  But does that happen?  Does any other school ever adopt their practices?  How can they influence other schools if they are purposely as far distant from the administration of those schools as possible?  And isn’t the success of the charters predicated on exactly that independence and lack of connection to the whole that is, by definition, impossible for the whole?

Yes, companies do set up separate divisions with a certain amount of autonomy in order to create new products and innovations, but the only way they then benefit from those divisions is when they control their outcomes and use these for their own purposes.  If they just let the divisions totally alone they could never benefit from them.

Charters are not at all like divisions of the overall school system.  Their goal is not to be an innovator for that larger whole.  They want to be that whole!  They want to replace the traditional school system, not benefit it.  Yes, if the public school system continued to control the charters and use their expertise for their own benefit, then there might be an argument that charters help the other schools, but this is not what happens.  Charters are in competition with the regular school system; they are competitors, enemies.  Enemies which are funded, amazingly enough, by the regular school system itself.

The entire system of funding charter schools is, in fact, deeply flawed.  Consider, for a moment, what will happen as the charter movement grows.  Currently they use about 6% of the funding in the public school system.  Fine.  But what will happen if they raise that to 20% or 50%, as their supporters want?  Are they still going to operate totally outside the traditional school bureaucracy even when they are in effect controlling that bureaucracy? How would that work?  If they are against any connection to the district or state administration, how then can they be a major part of that organization?  So will they then get more involved in that school bureaucracy, like the traditional schools?  Like the pigs who start wearing shoes and pants at the end of Animal Farm?  It won’t work.  As they grow they will either have to become more like the traditional schools, or stop being funded by the public school system.

The key, then, to the criticism of charter schools is their funding system; their use of public funds for essentially private purposes -- purposes that harm the general public, the source of those funds.  This is where we need to attack them.

Peter Dodington

August 3, 2016



Subways and School Reform

When I used to walk to my teaching job at Park West High School on West 50th Street in New York, almost everyone I met on the sidewalk was paying part of my salary.   Why was that?  I wasn’t teaching their children.

About 75% of the money for public schooling comes from the general, non-parent public, since parents with school-age children make up only about a quarter of the tax-paying population  (about 50 million out of some 200 million).  The schools are not primarily supported by the current group of parents; they are paid for, and so essentially controlled by, those non-parents on the street.   Those public taxpayers, then, are the key to solving the problems of our public schools.

If we want to improve all of our schools, getting our achievement scores up off their traditional perch near the bottom of the industrialized world, and also keep them public and open to all, we need to look at what makes this public program “public.”  How does public support for the schools work?  Why do we pay for our schools?  If we can’t answer this, we have an excellent reason right there for why the schools are not doing well.  If three-quarters of your supporters don’t know why they are funding your program, you have a problem.


I remember having a conversation about this one evening with a special ed. teacher in Brooklyn.  I was leaving the school one evening when I ran into him, the last ones out of those dark and humid halls.  He wanted to tell me about his day; how he had spent hours trying to get the computers to work in a room where bits of paint from a crumbling ceiling were constantly drifting down onto the keyboards and his students.

How could this be happening, he wanted to know, in one of the richest cities in the world?  Even if we have a problematic bureaucracy, don’t the people behind those city agencies, the taxpayers who actually provide the money for the schools, realize how much they are losing if they only paint ceilings once a generation?  Don’t they see how they benefit from the work we do with these students; how these kids will grow up to have good jobs and be leaders of their communities in ways that will benefit all of us, and that they are not going to do this unless we teach them in decent classrooms?  I had no answer for him other than that I, too, had taught in similar rooms.

I went home, though, and realized that I did know the answer to his question, and it was “No, they don’t see how they benefit from our work.”  He could see it, and I could see it, and the kids and their parents, but that was about it.  No one else had the faintest idea how we were benefitting the general public.  There was no data on this, no publicity, and, of course, no one ever came to see for themselves.  All the data on the schools is about the kids while they are students: their attendance, test scores, awards, etc.  Once they graduate no one pays any attention to them.

But it is their success as adult graduates that matters to the general public.  It’s their adult lives that provide the public benefit from the schools, not their student success.  You don’t actually benefit when a kid gets an “A;” it’s when he comes to work for you, or invents a new process, or moves in next door, that you obtain what you have been paying the public schools for:  intelligent, creative, civil, and hard-working adults.

There is no doubt that these benefits from education do occur.  Study after study has shown that better-educated students grow up to be more law-abiding, wealthier, healthier, and more tolerant than their less-educated peers, and that this success benefits everyone in their community.  The problem is that just how this happens is not clear to the taxpayers who support the schools.  It is not the benefit itself, but the demonstration of the benefit that is lacking.

Perhaps there is some correlation between school test scores and adult success, but it’s not strong enough to convince the public that they are getting all the benefit they have paid for.  They need to see evidence of the actual public benefit before they will spend their money.  You don’t buy a car because you have seen the parts in a factory.  You have to see the completed car itself before you will open your wallet.

Simply put, what we want for the non-parent majority is just what parents of school-age children already get automatically.  Parents do see how they benefit from the schools.  They see their children learning, and, more importantly, can see how the school will benefit their children, and the parents, after they graduate.

If I want to know whether a good algebra class helped my son become an architect, I can just ask him when he shows up at Thanksgiving dinner as an adult.  Parents keep in touch with their children their whole lives, so have an automatic way to assess the adult benefits they got from the schools.  This gives them an incentive to support improvements in the schools.  They want to fund better math programs because they know they will be able to see the results of that learning in their children’s adult lives.

But none of this works for the supporters who don’t have school-age children, the non-parents.  They have no direct connection to the children in the schools, so have no way of tracking their adult success or failure.  They have to rely on the schools to provide data on that adult benefit, and the schools don’t do this.  Unlike the parents, they have no way to see the long-term public benefits from the school programs they are now supporting, so they tend not to fund them very well.


This is why that ceiling was not getting painted.  Only the parents of the children in the school were interested in paying for a new ceiling, and they, it turned out, did not have enough money or influence.  The rest of the population, the ones on the street, had the money, collectively, but they had no way to see why they should use it.

And this must be true for most schools, not just urban ones in poor areas.  If three-quarters of the support comes from non-parents, the average school must be funded mostly by supporters who cannot see how they benefit from the schools very clearly.  Of course there are schools, particularly in the suburbs, where most of the supporters are parents, but these must be far in the minority.  All those non-parents have to live somewhere.

The result has to be a continuation of the status quo.  Teachers and parents push forward for new programs and initiatives, but the general public, with no evidence that any of this will matter, pulls back.  The schools don’t fail, but they don’t get any better, either.  This is why all our statistics have been flat for so long.  Our schools don’t improve because we don’t have a good way to show most of our supporters why they should fund improvements.

This stagnation is a crucial problem for our schools.  A good argument could be made that our trouble today is not that the school system is doing poorly but that it seems that it cannot do any better.  It would be one thing if the schools were at a low level and were slowly getting better.  It’s quite another that it seems we cannot get them ever to improve.  It’s not the level of our success that is bothering us but the stagnation.

This is why we have turned to completely different methods of school organization, such as charter schools, vouchers, or home schooling, instead of trying to fix the public school system we already have.    If we felt we could move the current system forward we would want to keep working on public school problems, but if these issues seem unsolvable the only thing to do is try a completely different approach, such as a more private-like school system.  A machine that cannot be fixed or improved will eventually be replaced.


Not all public programs have these problems. The police, for example, report on the crime rate in our neighborhoods.  They don’t just tell us about what happens in their police stations, such as how they solve crimes or meet the needs of those who are using their services, but the effect of that work on the rest of us, the general public.  What we, the public, want to know is whether our street is getting more dangerous or not, so that’s what they tell us about.  That’s the public benefit their work produces.

In the same way the Centers for Disease Control keeps track of the rates of various diseases and disorders in the country, not just what happens in their clinics and hospitals.  They may do a wonderful job with their patients, but that’s not what they report to us.  It’s the effect of their work that they publicize -- how this makes our lives safer and disease free.  Similarly, the sanitation department tells us how clean the streets are, not just how many bags of garbage they pick up, and the army tells us whether they achieved the objectives of their campaigns, not just how well their soldiers are fighting.  It is the results that affect us that are publicized, not the internal workings of the program.

But the schools do none of this.  They only tell us about the results that occur within their own buildings; the data on the students, not the effect of this work on the public.  Even though they are a public program, they report results that only matter to the people who are currently using their services, the parents and children involved, not the general public who are actually supporting them.

There is no solution to this problem at the school level.  We can make each school as good as we want, winning awards and setting new standards of excellence, and still end up with exactly the same stagnant level overall, because this is the only level the general public will support.  Each new and better program, funded and supported by its own group of parents and teachers, slowly dies as the parents move on to become non-parents.  Without any indication of how these improvements benefit them, the non-parent majority sees no point in continuing to fund them, so the program dies and we are back to square one.

This means that we are currently wasting a good amount of time and effort.  We keep trying to make the schools better, one by one, and then are frustrated that this does not improve the overall results.  We fail to see that what we need is not better schools, per se, but a better school system; not just a way to educate the children better, but a better way to govern the entire process.  We actually know how to teach children pretty well.  What we don’t know is how to run a successful public school system.


To borrow a phrase from James Baldwin, by now you are saying, “No, no; you go too far.  It’s not that bad.  There are other factors that are causing these problems.”  Perhaps, but let’s look more closely at these.

First, there is the general belief that public programs can never really succeed.  They seem to be a kind of compromise that will always produce mediocre results.  Our best workers don’t set their sights on working for public programs; they work in the private sector where the path to success is so much clearer.  The typical public worker seems to be some clock-watching bureaucrat who will never produce the excellence we want.

But I’m not arguing that public education should be similar to a successful start-up company, but that it could be similar to a successful public program.  There are such things.  Our military is a public program which is certainly one of the best in the world.  And what about our fire departments, roads, or water systems?  No one is complaining about them.  Most of our public programs are better than public programs in other countries.

The argument that the public schools are too bureaucratic cannot be the whole story.  All public programs are bureaucratic.  They are paid for jointly by the entire population, so have very complex bookkeeping needs.  When a policeman enters an apartment to settle a domestic dispute he has to be careful to meet the needs of everyone there: the grandmother, the children, the cousins and the neighbors, not just the ones causing the trouble, since everyone in that room is his boss, in a sense.  They all are paying him, as are all the other members of that community.  Keeping track of this so that everyone can see, at least to some extent, how their funding is being used, is a very complicated, and bureaucratic, problem.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a solution.

Nor is the argument valid that money cannot solve these bureaucratic problems; that we continue to spend more on the schools every year but get no improvements, so money must not be the answer.  In the everyday world, if your washing machine doesn’t work, and you pay for a repair, and it still doesn’t work, and you pay for a repair again, and it still doesn’t work, you don’t then say, “money can’t fix washing machines.”  You say, “There must be some other problem that we are not considering.”  That is my point.  The fact that money has not solved the public schools’ problems simply means that we have not yet figured out what is wrong with them.  Perhaps, then, we should look more closely at the structure of the public benefits from the school system.

In my own backyard, New York, I have seen the subway system steadily improve over the past 30 years.  I remember my father-in-law, from Iowa, looking at the 1-Train rumbling by back in the early ‘80’s, covered with graffiti and dirt, commenting that he didn’t think there was any hope for New York (where I had just moved with his daughter and two grandsons).  But the subway system solved the graffiti problem, by just hiring more car-cleaners, and slowly rebuilt the tracks and trains.  That fully public program found a way to solve its problems.

There are some interesting parallels in that story for the schools.  In those days everyone said that there was no solution to the graffiti problem and the general lack of upkeep.  The kids broke through all the fences they put up around the trains at night and marked up the cars to their hearts’ content.  There was no way to stop this, it seemed.

But new management came in and hired people to clean and repaint each car each night and the graffiti went away.  It turned out that you didn’t need to fence in the cars; just clean them.  The problem was not unsolvable; it was just that the people in charge had not thought it through.

And this was quite logical, since the people in charge, at first, were the ones who ran the trains.  The whole system was led by people who had once been conductors and trainmen.  Now graffiti doesn’t actually interfere with the running of the trains.  It doesn’t slow them down.  So to all those ex-conductors it didn’t seem like that big a problem.  It wasn’t their job.  They were supposed to make the trains run, not look good.  And the customers in the trains agreed; they also were not bothered by what was happening on the outside of the cars.  So the problem festered.

New management, though, saw that the key to the problem was not what was happening inside the cars, but outside them.  The people with the money, new money to pay for new improvements, were outside the cars.  They were the ones you needed to influence if you wanted more customers and more money.  And for them the graffiti was very important.  It was all they knew about the trains; all they saw.  They, the general public, weren’t likely to pay for improvements to the trains unless they could see that this problem had been taken care of.

Similarly, what the schools need to do is influence the people outside the school, the general public, not just those inside them, the parents and children.  The ones outside are the ones with the money for improvements, so they are the ones you need to pay attention to.  We want to show them that the schools can solve their public problems the way the subways did.  For the schools this would mean demonstrating that they are providing a public educational benefit to the general public.


But, then, is it really possible that our school system has always had some deep flaw?  Can we have had this problem for some 200 years and never noticed it?  Is this the way the Founding Fathers set it up; a program that could never improve?  Is that likely?

No, that is not likely.  But it could be that the school system was set up in a way that worked well 200 years ago and has developed problems over time.  Perhaps conditions have changed but the schools have not, and that is causing the problem.

It certainly seems that Washington, Jefferson, et al. wanted schools that worked as fully public programs.  They were always talking about how the public, not just the parents and children, would benefit from schools.  As Washington said in his first State of the Union address, “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”  It is the general public benefit, the overall level of “happiness” that the entire population gets from public education, that is important.

It is the adult graduates of the schools, the citizens that the schools will produce, that concern the Founding Fathers, not just what happens in the classrooms.  No one talks about test scores in the 18th century.  What they wanted, from the start, was precisely the kind of public benefit from the schools that I am saying we need to pay attention to today.  They had it right; they wanted a public program that benefited the whole community.  The schools they set up must have worked as successful public programs.  Somehow, though, we have gotten off track.


There are logical reasons, then, why the public schools are not improving, and these have more to do with the overall structure of the school system than any individual problems of teachers, schools, or students.  Once we focus just on that school system structure it is clear that it does not work the way a public program should, since it has no way to demonstrate its public benefit to its public supporters.  Those pedestrians on West 50th Street didn’t, in fact, know why they were paying my salary, and that is the central problem of our current school system.

Peter Dodington

July 25, 2016



Barking Up the Wrong Tree on Educational Equity


Lately I have been reading a number of articles on the problems of unequal educational levels throughout the country.  NPR has had a series on “Morning Edition” about the wide variety of spending levels in public education, often between districts that are right next to each other.  Others have bemoaned the low level of school spending in such states as Florida, calling the schools “failure factories,” and have noted efforts to take states to court to both raise the overall level of spending on the schools, and equalize, at least approximately, the spending levels between the districts.  There is a constant refrain that the quality of schooling should not be based on one’s zip-code.

None of this, however, seems to have made much difference to the actual spending levels.  The states have generally either thrown out such suits, or produced decisions which are then promptly ignored, or extensively watered down, by the state legislatures.  And the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in “Rodriguez” that the federal government has no duty to equalize school spending across the country.

Why is this?  Isn’t it a principle of our country that each child should get equal treatment from the government, and so should have roughly the same amount of money spent of him or her in school?

The answer, unfortunately, is no, that is not a principle in our country.  Our education system has always been based on the principle of local control.  We believe, we say, that education is best determined by the local schools and districts, with the help of the states.  Well, that means that the districts and the states are always going to come up with varying levels of spending on the schools.  That’s what local control means: that the local or state governments have the ability to choose for themselves what level they will spend on their own schools.  So of course there is a wide variation in these levels.  Local control has to mean unequal spending levels.

So these complaints and law suits have to fall on deaf ears.  Every effort to even out our treatment of our children runs smack into the fact that our school system is based on a different principle.  There is no statement in the Constitution that says that each child should be treated equally.  Everything is left to the states, and they have consistently allowed the local districts to set their funding at various levels, and, of course, have no interest in making their own state funding equal to that of any other states.  All the arguments for equity are based on a national principle of equity which, in fact, does not exist.

This means that, under our current Constitution, we are never going to get anywhere on this issue of school equity.  All we can do is just annoy everyone by trying to prove something that can never be proven, and also make those who do believe in the value of school equity look like they do not know what they are doing.

There is a solution, though, and it is to go right to the source of the problem, the U.S. Constitution, and work to adopt an amendment that says that children should get equal educational treatment throughout the country.  Well, you say, that would be difficult.  But it would be considerably less difficult than trying to get the states to agree to equity, which will never happen for both traditional and legal reasons.  If we are to take equity seriously, we have to start working on a Constitutional amendment.

Peter Dodington