National Public Education

Media Problems in Public Education


The other day I read an article in the Raleigh, NC, News and Observer on problems with the new regulations for the use of the so-called “529” college-savings plans for K-12 private school expenses.  (The new tax bill recently passed by congress allows funds from these plans, which are tax-free, to be used for private K-12 schools as well as for college.)  Finally, I thought, someone has realized the fallacy of using public money, in this case in the form of an exemption from taxes, to support a private program, namely private schools.

The article, however, made none of these points.  It took a strictly consumerist approach to the topic, limiting its criticism to the danger of using this plan in North Carolina where one might incur an increase in one’s state taxes.  It turns out that North Carolina eliminated the state tax exemption for these 529 plans back in 2013, so, as the law stands now, one would owe state tax on any use of the savings in your 529 plan for a private school in the state.  So, the article says, we should “hold off” from using these funds at this time, or until that law is changed.

The article did mention that there were two points of view on these public/private issues, but only quoted the usual bromides about how any benefit to the private schools harms the public schools, and how having a “choice” in public education is an American right.  Nothing was said, at all, about the overall logic of using public funds to benefit a private program.

These 529 plans are part of a public law, passed and supported by the general population of this country, because it helps lessen the heavy financial burden of college.  The benefits from such a plan can be used by anyone, rich or poor, for any college. That’s why it was passed.

Using this public plan to support private K-12 schools is a different story.  Here the money can only be used by parents wealthy enough to send their children to private schools.  The money can’t be used to support public schools for everyone for the simple reason that such schools don’t have tuition.  They can’t use this kind of assistance.  This means that the general public is now supporting a plan that benefits only a very small part of the population.  That won’t work in the long run; eventually the public will figure it out and pull the plug on such an obvious misuse of their tax funds.

Why, then, doesn’t the reporter on the News and Observer point this out?  Why does he only want to discuss whether his readers will make or lose money with this program?  Is that the only issue in this debate over public and private schools?  Why doesn’t this reporter, who seems quite intelligent in his comments on the tax issues involved, bring out these more general problems?

The answer, of course, is that he is an employee of a private organization, a newspaper, that is a business; that makes its money by advertising, and so has a built-in bias against any organization, like the government, that doesn’t contribute to that business.  The government doesn't advertise.  It’s not just that he cannot afford to offend the businessmen who might want to advertise in his newspaper; it’s that the whole idea that the government, as in government-run public schools, might be in the right in this discussion, and the private sector, as in private schools, might be in the wrong, is not something he can print.   He’s on the private side of the ledger; he has no interest in talking about anything that puts the idea of private enterprise in a bad light.  His salary is literally paid for by private business; he has to side with their interests.

We don’t have a truly public news outlet in this country, like the BBC or CBC, fully supported by the government.  Even so-called “public” radio and TV is mostly paid for by private individual and private corporate donations.  NPR gets only about 10% of its funding from congress.  So, of course we don’t have unbiased coverage of issues, like public versus private funding for education, that involve the differences between private and public money.

When people tell me that “no one agrees with you,” they mean, of course, no one in the media, which is where they are getting all their information.  How could it be any different?  That doesn’t mean, though, that they have the right answers.


Peter Dodington

February 10, 2018



Homeschooling Problems

Recently it has been reported that a number of children in California have been abused at home, and that the parents hid this from authorities by keeping them home and home-schooling them.  In California one needs only to inform the state that you are keeping the kids home in order to qualify for homeschooling.  There are no required tests, curricula, or visits by a teacher.  Officials commented that this was by no means an isolated incident.

How have we let this happen?   Is it now possible to keep children out for no reason at all?  Thirteen states, like California, have no restrictions on homeschooling.  All you need to do is inform the state that you are doing it.  What ever happened to the idea, not so long ago, that a truant officer would round up any child not in school and take them to class, or fine the parents?  What was the point of that?  Wasn't it that there was a value, for all of us, for every child to be in school?  That this would make our society stronger and better?

It is argued that this is an issue of "freedom" and "liberty."  Parents should have the freedom to send their child wherever they want.  But why does this only apply to education?  Should we also give parents the right to live in a certain area, or have a certain doctor, or a a certain job?  Would that work?  We do have a "choice" in education -- it's called private school.  You can go to any one of these you want.  But, when the schooling is being paid for by other people, as in a public program, you have to meet the requirements that those people have put in place.

But can't I opt out of this program?  No, you can't, any more than you can opt out of shoveling your walk when it snows, or driving at the speed limit.  A public program has to be the same for everyone.  As I have often noted, the whole point of a public program is to solve a public problem; that is to say, a problem that deals with other people, not just your own needs.  We have a police department to change the behavior of other people, not ourselves.  Of course we could also do this privately, and just hire body-guards, but this works much less well than a public police department.  Then, if the point is to change other's behavior, you can't very well just let them opt out.  We have public education because there are societal benefits from a well-educated populace.  Letting people opt out of the program weakens that benefit.

Why, then, do the states do this?  Because they benefit from it.  It costs them money to educate each child, so letting them be homeschooled helps their bottom line.  This is true, as well, for the districts.  Fifteen fewer students could well mean one less teacher, and a significant savings in salaries and benefits.  But does it make sense that we are paying for a program, with our taxes, that is trying to get smaller and smaller?  Is that the outcome we want?

When you look at the entire homeschooling concept, you can see that it has grown out of the idea that the public schools only benefit the parents, not the general public.  From that point of view, of course it makes sense to let the parents choose how they will use this program that has been set up to service them.  It's "theirs" to do with as they will.  But this view is wrong.  Public schools are not run by the parents, they are run by the entire population, the people who pay for them.  It belongs to that group, not just the people who have children in the schools.  A private school is run by the parents, but a public school is owned, and run, by the general population.  As such, solving just the parents' problems, as in their need for "freedom," will never work.  The program was set up to achieve higher goals.

In all of this the media is absolutely clueless.  They always view the situation as if it were a matter of a private purchase of a service; as if these were private schools.  This is because the media, themselves, are private organizations.  We don't have a BBC in this country, paid for by the government.  Everyone, including Public TV and radio, rely on private businesses for their funding.  That puts them on the side of the consumer, the individual parent trying to find the best school for their kid.  That this whole school program is being paid for by taxpayers, who have their own needs, is ignored.  Consequently, they misunderstand the situation.

I have many friends who homeschool their children, and know many wonderful people who have been homeschooled.  That doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do.  Public education has more important goals; ones we need to pay attention to if we ever want to achieve them.


Peter Dodington

January 20, 2018



Tax “Reform” and Public Education

Now that the tax bill has been signed and is the law of the land, it is time to look seriously at how it will effect public education.  As is common knowledge, the bill takes away the deduction allowed for local and state taxes (SALT), if these amount to more than $10,000.  In other words, last year you could deduct from your income the amount you paid in local and state taxes, when filling out your federal tax return.  This meant, in effect, that you only had to pay 2/3 of the "sticker price" of those local and state taxes, since 1/3 of this was being given back to you by that deduction from your federal taxes, assuming your overall tax rate was around 33%.  Now this would not happen for everyone who is paying more than $10K in local and state taxes.

To me, this means that we will end up with 1/3 less public education.  I don't see any way around this, though this is not what is usually mentioned by most commentators in the media.  There we hear all about how this cut "may" affect the public schools, and how "advocates for public education" are "worried" that this may harm the schools.  No one wants to look at the numbers.  The savings plan for private schools is then often brought up, but this will affect only a tiny amount of money compared to the SALT provisions.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are involved in SALT taxes.  Cutting those services by a third will be a huge change.

I read somewhere, some time ago, that the whole reason the SALT plan was in this bill was that it was the main way that the other tax cuts, such as for corporations and the "one percent," could be funded.  Without it, the overall plan would not work.  That is how much money is involved in the SALT part of the new law.

What no one in the media is saying is that this has to mean less public education, (as well as less police protection, public health, garbage pickup, streetlights, parks, water supply, internet connections, etc.).  Each of us only has so much money to spend.  If now we will have to pay the full price for our state and local services, instead of  2/3 of this, we will obviously only be able to afford 2/3 of the services we used to get.  For example, if the various governments used to charge us a total of $20,000 in taxes, including property taxes, for their services, and we all were paying only $13, 300 for this last year, we are not going to suddenly come up with that extra $6,700 this year.  Instead, the state and local governments will have to drop back to finding a way to just charge us a total of $13,300.  That's all we will pay; that's all we have.  To do that, then, the governments will have to cut back their services drastically, by about a third.  It's just simple math.

But, you say, what about the exclusion for anyone paying less than $10,000?  Yes, that will affect a good number of people, but it will not affect the bottom line for the states and the local governments very much.  The property taxes on a large house in a wealthy suburb can easily approach $100,000.  That is where the local and state governments get their money.  The exclusion helps the low end of the economic scale, but the finances for local and state governments are dependent on the top end of the scale.

So what does this mean for the school?  It has to mean fewer teachers, bigger classes, less repair to the buildings, cheaper books, fewer "amenities" like art, music, foreign languages, a library, sports teams, and absolutely no improvements of any kind.  Doesn't education cost money?  Doesn't less money mean less education?

What is so bizarre about all this is that the party currently in power has been saying for years that the problem in pubic education is centralized control; that what we need is more state and local control of the schools, not any "interference" from Washington.  But here is a law that turns that notion on its head.  It will cut back all the local and state programs, and do nothing to lessen the federal role.  Does that make sense?  This program will centralize control of the schools more and more.  Perhaps I, who call for a larger federal role, should be happy, but it is such a wasteful way of doing this.  This law will harm public education.

So, a sad day.  As my son, an ER doctor in a large city, has said, we may well look back on this law as the beginning of the end of public financing of our schools and public hospitals.  Let us hope not.  We still have the vote; let's use it.

Peter Dodington

December 23, 2017




Elizabeth Green and Charter Schools

Elizabeth Green, the creator of "Chalkbeat" and the author of several excellent works on the public schools, has written an article for the Atlantic about Eva Moskowitz and her charter school network.  In that article she says that she worries about where these charter organizations are headed, with their wealthy donors on their boards, but feels that they are the "most promising model we have for public education."

But I don't want to discuss either Ms Moskowitz or the charter school movement. Instead I want to ask why Ms Green rejects the other options for our schools, such as the traditional government run schools.   I want to look at what Ms Green says about public education in general, and see if we an figure out what she thinks is going wrong there, and whether there is any solution to those "public" problems.  If not, then we might turn to a discussion of things like charter schools.

Ms Green says that when she started to write a book in 2010 about the public schools, she realized "how impossible teaching is, especially in traditional public schools."  She points out that other countries are able to supply good materials, goals, and training to their teachers, but our governments do not.  Part of the problem, she says, in the confusing mix of local, state, and national authority in public education.  She wants a system that is "equitable, accountable, and parent-friendly," but does not see how our governments can supply this.  She goes so far as to worry that "democracy as we know it is a problem."

All this is true.  But why, then, not try to fix the democracy?  Before we turn away from it, and give up on a workable public system, why not try to change that government system so that it does work? That would not be impossible; we still are able to vote on changes in the way we govern our public programs, aren't we?

Ms Green, herself, hints at how we might approach this problem.  At the end of the article, she turns her attention to the boards that run the charter school systems and finance the charter-specific aspects of them. She worries, quite rightly, that the people who control that money might use these funds for their own ends.  She sees, rightly, that those who control the money in these programs control the essence of these charter schools.

Let's apply that kind of thinking, then, to the public school system.  Where does the money for that system come from?  Obviously, the taxpayers.  And not just the parent taxpayers, who only make up a quarter of the population, but the general taxpayers who don't have children in the schools.  They, as in "we", are the source of the money that makes public education happen; we, ourselves, are the "board" for the school system. That's why it's called a "public" system; it is funded by that "public."  When I was a teacher in the New York City schools, almost everyone I met on the street was paying part of my salary. The money, and, actually, the control, of public education comes from the taxpayers.

But you can see right away that there are problems.  Why were those people on the streets of New York paying me?  I wasn't teaching their children.  So was I providing them some kind of public benefit, like less crime and a better economy?  But where is the evidence that this is happening?  Almost all of that money goes to the state and local governments, but do these governments ever tell us anything about those public benefits?  All they tell us is what happens in the schools, not the effect of this on us, the people paying for those schools.

Well, you might say, that is too complicated.  Who can fathom the workings of state and local government?  It's so "political."  But if you can work your way through why a hedge-fund owner might want to support charter schools, I think you can also start to figure out our decentralized state and local public school system.  There are some obvious truths that are apparent to anyone who looks in that direction.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher training, which Ms Green has particularly focused on, quite rightly.  Who is in charge of this in the public schools?  Not the local districts, and not the federal government, which provides less than 10% of the funding for the school system.  It must be the states.  But why should the states want to do this well?  Do the graduates of their programs stay in their states?  Not at all.  So why should they focus on spending their good state tax money on this?  They don't get any direct benefit from it.  They have to share the results of their program with all the other states, so why should they ever try to make their program better than the average level that the other states provide?  So that's why we have average, mediocre, teacher-training programs. There is no way around this as long as we allow the states to run these programs.

In Ms Green's article, the words "state government" do not appear.  That is a problem. She has such a good understanding of the schools; she just needs to take it to the next level.  Where is the public money coming from, and what is wrong with the way we are doing that?  There are public solutions to our public school problems, but we won't ever find these unless we examine the fundamental structure of the system we are currently using.  Before we even start to think about alternatives, like charter schools, let's look critically at the public system we have, and see if we can make it better.

Peter Dodington

December 9, 2017



A Conversation about National Public Education

I was sitting in La Rana, my favorite bar in Decorah, Iowa, when I spied a friend whom I had just met a few days before at the bar.  He had moved to Decorah from the East Coast to work for a local non-profit, and had an interesting take on Mid-West and US problems in general.  He asked me what I was up to, and I said I was writing a book on public education.  His eyes lit up and he asked me to explain.

Me: When I was teaching in the public schools, I started wondering why we had a state-run, diversified, school system.  Was this really better than the national systems almost every other country had?  Could there be some kind of a link between this system and the poor performance of our schools?

He: But there are all sorts of reasons why our schools do poorly.  Half the students in the public schools are from low-income families; many of these families have serious problems that interfere with the kids' learning, not to mention that there has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in this country.  Many people simply don't want good schools, or just don't care about the education of those poor minority kids.

Me: Perhaps so, but none of that negates the fact that we might improve the schools overall by having a different structure for the system.  Perhaps some of those outcomes you mention are, in fact, linked to our state-run structure.

He: How could that be?

Me: Well, for one, our state system works against providing an incentive for the public to support the schools.  At the state level, that is, not the local level.  The local schools work fine, but local taxes provide only about half the cost of the schools.  The rest comes from state taxes.  Federal support is negligible.

At the state level, it turns out, you are stuck with paying for the cost of the schools with your own state taxes, but then have to share the benefits from the schools, such as less crime, better productivity, better public health, etc., with the rest of the country.  The graduates don't stay in your state; they move to other states.  This means that there is little incentive to produce really good schools.  The only level of schooling you will ever want is the average level of all the other states, since then you don't lose anything when your graduates move away and are replaced by graduates from other states.  The better your graduates, the more you lose when they move away, so you will never want to fund really good schools.

The states are trying to fund a collective good, which spreads over the whole country, with individual, autonomous, payments.  As many economists have pointed out, this will always lead to mediocre outcomes.   The system itself could be the main reason why the schools stay mediocre.

He: So what's the solution?

Me: A national school system, where your taxes are applied to all the kids in the country, the same ones who provide the benefits.  Then it would make sense to make the schools as good as possible, since each improvement will come back directly to the national taxpayer in the form of national benefits.  You would be sharing the benefits with everyone in the country, but also sharing the costs with them, so it would work.

He: That would never work.  The real problem is that we aren't teaching the kids correctly.  The schools are too rigid; they don't emphasize creativity enough.  They are run by a huge bureaucracy.  And you want to make that bureaucracy even bigger! How could that ever lead to better schools?

Me: A bigger bureaucracy is not necessarily a worse one.  Look at your state tax forms; are they better than the federal tax forms?  Look at the military.  There's a huge bureaucracy that runs the best army in the world.  Of course it's bureaucratic; all large public programs have a certain amount of bureaucracy.

He: Fine, but where's the evidence that a federal program would work?  You need to go back and get more data.  It seems to me that the federal programs haven't worked very well in the past.

Me: There is no data on a new idea.  There's just a logical argument that it would work. And, of course the federal programs currently don't work; they are not in charge, the states are.   I'm not proposing that the feds take over more of the current system.  I want to change the system.

He: I still don't see how the feds would do better than the states.

Me: That's not the point.  I'm not saying they would do better, but that they could do better.  That's all.  Whether they actually do this is still up to them.  The point is that the states can never, ever, do better.  They are locked in to mediocrity by the structure of the state system itself.

Your state can make their own schools as good as they want, and still end up with mediocre schools in the long run, because the public will not fund the schools at any other level. It's simply not in their interest to fund really good schools when all the other states are mediocre, and those graduates migrate into your state as adults.  So you can make good schools, but no one will fund them, so they will eventually revert back to the mediocre status quo.

There is no guarantee that a federal program will be better, but at least this is possible, which is a step in the right direction.

He: I'm not sure most people will be able to understand all this.

Me: But you do; why not others?


Peter Dodington

November 25, 2017