National Public Education

Wealthy Donors, Then and Now


One of the oddest things, to me, about the modern public school controversy is the presence of wealthy donors.  Gates, Zuckerman, Walmart, and a host of others have poured millions of dollars into the public schools.  When we started Bronx Latin we got about half a million dollars in computers, “smart boards,” and the like from private donors.  Almost every charter school starts off with funding from a private foundation or individual.  When Bill Gates began his foundation one of his first efforts was to help divide up large urban schools into smaller, less bureaucratic schools.  And, of course, Zuckerman gave $100 million to the Newark Public Schools a few years ago.

This has only started happening in the last 20 years or so.  No one ever gave money to my public high school when I was growing up.  The sports teams did have their donors, and some of the music or theater programs, but no one ever gave millions of dollars, or ever felt that their contribution was actually going to fundamentally change the situation.  It was simply a way to help the schools with programs they already had.  And, all such donations were totally group efforts; there were no big donors contributing to the public schools.

Of course wealthy donors have always given money to private schools, whether secondary or college, and still do.  What has changed is the introduction of that kind of wealth into the public system.  Why is this?  Why didn’t Gates set up his own private school if he wanted to improve U.S. education, as wealthy men have done in the past?  He could have created a whole series of very good private schools, I would think, which would have helped many young people get an excellent education.  That is what the wealthy did 100 years ago.  Why not now?  What has changed?

One reason is clearly that these donations help the donors sell something.  Obviously, if you give children computers or smart phones with your products loaded onto them, the kids are more likely to end up buy more of that product as they get older.  And many of the donors are in a business that gets a considerable amount of money from young people, so it is only natural that they want to have access to these customers.  There are 50 million young “customers” in the public schools.

But why didn’t this happen in the past?  Surely a company that made pencils 50 years ago might also have wanted those children to start off with their brand of pencils, and so donated to the schools.  What has changed?  Well, for one, sadly, the oversight of the state and local school authorities has grown more lax.  Pencil companies were not allowed to advertise to the children in the public schools back then; it was considered improper.  Today, though, it is allowed and sometimes encouraged.  For some reason we now think that “using” our children to create more income for the school is a good thing, when we absolutely refused to allow this in the past.  That is something to think about.

But, still, the whole process doesn’t quite make sense.  Why is this modern donor, who is supposedly so wealthy that he can give his money away, worried about making money off that donation?  This is not what Carnegie or Rockefeller did.  They didn’t get any business from building their libraries or schools.  Perhaps it helped create a good feeling about their company, but very indirectly.  They certainly weren’t using the children to improve sales.

Perhaps, then, there is some difference between modern wealth and that of the 19th century.  It might be, or at least seem to be, less stable.  If you own a number of steel mills I would think you could be pretty sure that your wealth was going to be there at least for a couple more decades.  It couldn’t disappear overnight.  But that is exactly what can happen to modern wealth based on something like social media or finance.  There is no building, no factory; it’s all based on the current attitudes of millions of customers or investors, and that can change overnight, and often does.  For some of these modern wealthy individuals, there is no way to truly give your money away; the risk is too great; you have to keep making it work for you.

This may be one of the reasons why these modern donors don’t create private schools.  These are not a very good investment.  No one gets rich by owning a school.  As we have noted elsewhere, you are forced to benefit all sorts of people in society in general who benefit from the success of your graduates but do not pay you a dime for that benefit, and this eats into your profit margin.  And, of course, your competition, the public schools, are offered free to all.  The only real advantage you have is that you can keep your school small and so meet the individual needs of the students better.  But that means you have to stay small, and cannot expand and grow.  You can make some profit, but not much.

But why then turn to public education?  You can’t argue that this helps the schools.  There is not much evidence of that, and why should there be?  A good school is not just a matter of money.  The wealthiest schools are by no means always the best, in either the public or the private realm.  Money from private donors cannot create, by itself, a good school, but it does bring about a number of problems.

The first is just a matter of scale.  Everyone is amazed at how much money these donors have, but it is only a drop in the bucket compared to the overall budget for the public school system.  If you want to affect even a small portion of those 50 million students you would have to spend 100’s of billions, not millions, of dollars.  No one has that kind of money.  And, you would have to keep giving it away each year.

That brings up the second point, which is that this aid is almost always given as a one-shot donation.  Those smart boards at Bronx Latin only came to us once, at the start of the first year.  Five years later most were in the trash.  They wore out and were not fixed.  At that point, then, they were a liability, not an asset.  They had helped certain classes for a while, but could not change the overall success of the school.  (I loved them.  We would get on the Cambridge University Press website and have students come up and play their Latin grammar games, which were excellent.  That was fun, but lasted only a few years.)

A third problem is just the inexperience of the people in charge of donating the money.  People outside the public schools don’t usually know much about how to improve them.  Take Gates’ efforts to create small schools.  Eventually even he had to admit that this did not change the schools very much.  Simply making smaller schools does not automatically make them better.  There is a reason why some of the best public schools are quite large, such as Stuyvesant in Manhattan.  Neither class size nor school size is closely related to overall success.  Things like the quality of the teachers is, but Gates didn’t touch that.  It was simply a mistake to focus just on school size.

And finally, there will always be a basic conflict between the donors and the public on these matters.  The donors, quite logically, feel that they ought to have some say over where the money is spent, since it is theirs, and that usually means that they want it spend on certain programs that they think will succeed.  They don’t want the money just spread evenly over the entire school program.

But that is the only way the public will approve of the donation.  A public program is supported by everyone equally, with each taxpayer paying the same tax burden, so of course each should reap the same benefit, right?  This public, collective, nature of a public program conflicts directly with the wishes of the donors, as Mr. Zuckerman found out in Newark.  The public will always demand equality, and that means that the money has to go to the good, the bad, and the ugly equally, regardless of their chances of using it successfully.  No private businessman is going to be happy with that.  The public world is not the same as the private world.

So there are good reasons why modern donors end up investing in public education, and equally good reasons why this doesn’t work well.  The whole concept is flawed.  There is no private solution to public education’s problems, no matter how much is donated.  The only solution is to fix those public problems through the public system, that is, the local, state, and national governments; the people who can actually improve the public schools.

Peter Dodington

October 22, 2016


The Civil Rights Movement and Educational Refporm

Many would agree that the civil rights movements over the last 50 years has succeeded quite well in changing the way we all look at such issues as racism, homophobia, and equal rights for women.   Could we look to them, then, for ideas on how to improve public education?

There is no doubt there are many similarities between these two kinds of public problems.  Both are about the need to treat all people equally and provide them with an equal level of services, rights, and justice.  We are opposed to the privatization of the schools for the same reasons we have been opposed to racism, sexism and homophobia – it is based on the assumption that certain people are intrinsically better than others, and so think they should be allowed to have more of whatever is in question.  Parents, teachers and students have been holding sit-ins, rallies, and marches to protest these violations of their educational rights just as people did in the past for infractions concerning their other civil rights.

But there are differences between the two efforts, especially concerning the efficacy of using simply local efforts.  In the educational movement the thought seems to be that if we can only get all the local players working together – the parents, teachers and other community leaders – we will be able to fashion excellent “community schools” that will restore an equity of resource allocation.  The goal of the marches and demonstrations is not so much to broadcast the problem to the rest of the country, but rather to unify and strengthen the local constituents. There are specific restrictions to bringing in “outside” help.  No one wants some federal or state authority coming in to “interfere” with this local problem.  Everyone knows that the best schools are run by their local community, just as the best private schools are, so there is no need to appeal to those outside that community.  Parents, teachers, and their friends and neighbors are the solution, they say.

But this emphasis on local success is quite different from the strategy used by the civil rights movements.  Take, for example, efforts by Black people to get a local café to serve them.  Yes, they could boycott the store, or put up picket lines around it, or try some other way to convince them to change their policy, but there were always clear limits to what such practices could accomplish.  For one, it would usually lead simply to the imprisonment of the demonstrators and the continuation of the racist practices of the store.  The law was on their side.  The forces in favor of those racist practices had the power of the local, state, and national governments behind them.

Instead, the civil-rights demonstrators sought to influence the rest of the population.  They would demonstrate, but try to stay within the law as much as possible.  In that way they could continue indefinitely to influence the overall population of the state and nation, not just their local community.  This is where the solution lay; in the hearts and minds of the people outside their community, the ones who could vote to change those racist laws.

What this comparison shows is that perhaps our educational reformers are underestimating the power of the forces arrayed against them, the forces in favor of privatization.  These forces are not going to be affected by simply making changes in the local pro-education community.  The problem is not in that community, it’s in the wealthy forces outside it.  Just as you couldn’t fight racism by simply organizing the local Black community and leaving it at that, so also you cannot fight efforts to privatize the schools by simply organizing the local parents.  They, by themselves, are not in a position to solve the problem.

If schools were like a community garden on a vacant lot, they could be improved by simply getting all the local people to support this effort.  But schools are much more complex and expensive.  They cannot be built with only local money.  If you do that you end up with store-front schools, as any locally funded daycare center will tell you.  Good private schools are not overcharging you when they ask for all that tuition money; that’s what good education costs.  There is no way this can be raised simply through the efforts of a local community that is not particularly wealthy.  You have to use state and national funds.

This means that, like the civil rights movement, you have to appeal to those who control those laws, policies, and funds, namely the general population -- the taxpayers who provide the money for those state and national funds, and vote for the laws which regulate them.

Furthermore, if you want to equalize the resources of the public schools throughout the country, as educational reform leaders say they do, then you cannot logically work only with one half of that equalization problem, your own community.  It’s the relationship between your community and the wealthy communities that matters, so you have to work on both.  If you try to solve this problem by just making your own community better, the wealthy communities will just do the same thing and make their own communities better, so the relationship between the two will stay the same.  You have to move to the next higher level of organization to solve the relationship problem, namely the state or national laws that are controlling the situation.

This means that even though there may be a host of reasons why you do not want to deal with government agencies outside of your local educational community, you are going to have to find a way to do this if you ever want to substantially improve the local schools.  These “outsiders” are not the problem, they are the solution.  They are the only way to affect the practices of the wealthy communities and so provide more equal public school resources for all.

I am well aware that working with the state and national educational agencies is not easy, and that it is hard to figure out how to influence them through public opinion, but that does not change the validity of the argument.  Of the two approaches to educational reform, the local on the one hand, and the state and national on the other, the latter may be difficult, but the former is impossible.  There simply is no way, ever, to substantially improve the schools through just local efforts.  You have to get the state and national forces involved at some point, so you might as well work on that problem from the start.

Peter Dodington

October 11, 2016



Thoughts on The Journey for Justice Alliance

Recently an organization for grass-roots support for strong community-based public schools, The Journey for Justice Alliance, organized a rally to protest against public school policies that harm local public schools, policies such as charters schools and other privatization schemes that foster inequality.  Needless to say, I am all in favor of this organization and have nothing but praise for their efforts to strengthen the schools.  However, I still would to add my two cents to this debate, hoping that these thoughts are taken as an indication of good will, not criticism.

The first issue I want to discuss is the whole emphasis on control by the “community schools.”  J4J bases much of their argument for justice and equality on the need for strong local schools having complete control over their own resources.  Well and good; we want strong local schools.  The trouble is that this emphasis on local community control does not combat the dominance by the wealthy school districts and the privatization movement.  It actually helps them.

I have taught both in the South Bronx and in Scarsdale, NY, about 30 miles north.  Those folks in Scarsdale would like nothing better than to develop their own “community school” with their own wealthy resources and privileges.  Local control is not in general a force for equality; it is the opposite.  It does nothing to even out the differences between school districts.  It encourages these differences.  If you say that district 12 in the South Bronx should have total control over its own resources, you then also have to say that Scarsdale should likewise have total control over their own wealth, which, of course, is so much greater.  There is a “community” in Scarsdale, too.  Simply saying you want community control is not, by itself, going to solve the problem of the differences between the districts.

What you want is some kind of organization that can deal with those differences; that can lessen them.  Something like an alliance between all the local groups, such as J4J is doing.  That kind of alliance has the ability to even out the differences between the districts, not just develop them individually.  It can create equality and justice, not just point out where these qualities are lacking.

But that alliance would have to include the wealthy districts, too, if we ever want to bring the districts closer together in their wealth and power.  What kind of alliance could do that?

The answer is the government.  So, my second point is that government is not a dirty word.  It is actually one of the ways we can help create better community schools.  There are three governments that control the public schools: local, state, and federal.  If what you want is to lessen the control of the local districts in general, so that the wealthy districts won’t always dominate, then you have to turn to either the state or national governments for help.

One of the reasons we have state and federal involvement in the schools at all is to equalize the differences between the districts.  O course, readers of this column know that I think the federal government could help much more than the states can, but if you want to start with the states, that’s fine, too.  The first step is just to realize that you can’t solve these problems of equality with just local organizations.

But, you will say, you don’t want such a “top down” solution imposed from above.  You want the voice of the people to be heard.  Fine.  That is right.  But once you organize those voices, and get them all to agree on what collective action they want to take, you then have to turn this collective agreement into some kind of “top down” action.  How else could you implement it?

A public problem that affects everybody, like inequality in the public schools, cannot be solved simply from the bottom up.  It’s a public, collective, problem, and so needs a public solution that affects everyone in the same way.  That means, by definition, that the solution has to look somewhat “top-down.”  So my third point is that arbitrary top down solutions are bad, but ones that are based on the collective will of the people are good.  These are the government solutions that  work.

As J4J says, the public schools are a public program, one we all support and benefit from.  Turning it into private-like programs such as charters and vouchers undermines that benefit and subverts the founding principles of this country.  When we seek to solve these public problems, though, we have to use public methods, which is to say, collective, governmental methods.  There are no other solutions.

Peter Dodington

October 1, 2016


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