National Public Education

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








Druids Dialogue IX: Do We Actually Want a Good State School System?

Another late afternoon at Druids, the bar across the street from my school.  Two English teachers, their department head, and a special ed. teacher sit together talking about public education.

Pedro:  What is so strange about the problems of public education is that we constantly talk about something that simply is not true: that everyone wants a state-based system.

Limato: But of course we do.  We all want a decentralized state system.  It’s the American way.  American exceptionalism!  No one wants anything but.

Tom:    Do we?  Then why don’t we do anything about it?  Everyone says the bureaucracy is the problem.  So why don’t we fix the bureaucracy?  When was the last time you saw a demonstration on the steps of any state capital for education reform?

Bob:     Exactly, we all complain about the bureaucrats, but forget that there are ways to change government.  People do this all the time for things they care about, like civil rights or religious issues.  Everyone agrees that education is important, and that it needs reform, yet no one is out there working for this at the state level, the level we say we want.

Limato: So is everyone lying?  They don’t really care about it?  Why else would nothing get done?

Pedro:  Be…c…a..u…s…e they can see that it's impossible to improve the state programs.  The benefits will just move away.  It’s a losing game.  And the better you get, the more you lose.  It doesn’t make sense to try to make your state really good.

Limato: So you’re saying we’re not lying, we do care, but we also actually know that the state system will never work.  We’re twisted.  So that’s why it’s so hard to fix.  We’ve already decided we can’t.

Tom:    Or won’t.

Pedro:  Right.  Look at it this way.  What would the state system look like if it really worked?  Wouldn’t there still be some states with poor systems? Isn’t that the whole point of letting the states do it themselves – some would succeed and some wouldn’t?   But that’s what we already have. They say that Massachusetts has a school system as good as almost any in the world.  But does that solve the problem?  Not at all.  We still want the national level to go up.  We don’t actually want the kind of success that the state system would bring, even if it worked.  We don’t want 50 different success stories; we want one story – national success.

Bob:     But wait a minute.  Don’t graduates also leave the country, as well as the states?  Why isn’t that a problem?

Pedro:  Because it’s so much less.  The percent of those leaving this country in their life-time is down in the single digits, as it is for most countries.  So, something like 95% of the benefits you create from a public program in your own country will come back to you.  For leaving a state, though, it’s around 40%.   That means you will lose almost half the benefits you create in that state.  That makes a huge difference.  Mobility between states in American is about twice as high as between provinces in Australia, and three times as between provinces in Canada, or any other political divisions within any other country.

Tom:    Yeah, there is no real reason why someone should stay in one state or another.  There may have been at one time, when Massachusetts was Puritan and Maryland Catholic, or Texas an independent country, but those days are long gone.  There is no advantage to one state or another any more.

Limato: And there are laws against treating new residents from out-of-state differently than in-state in matters like property ownership or taxation.  We want it to be easy for people to move from state to state.  No one actually wants Nebraska to be all that much better than South Dakota.  We all want to be able to move to any state easily, which means they all should be about the same.

Pedro:  And these kinds of weak state programs seem to us quite natural, since what we really want is a strong nation.  The reality is that we have a de facto national education system.  Look at the way we talk about the problem.  No one ever says that Ohio is doing worse than Germany.  All the data, all the news, is about the national level of education.  Yet there is no such thing.  There is actually no “American” public education.

Tom:    Right, when you think about it, “American” education should be something like “European” education, a collection of different programs, each run independently.  Well, no one ever worries about “European” education, since there is nothing you can do about it.  No one ever looks at that data, or tries to change it, since no one is in charge of it.  Each European country goes its own way.  But for some reason we ignore this little bit of reality.  We continue to talk about American education as if it actually existed.

Bob:     That’s what has always intrigued me about this whole Common Core brouhaha.  We have this decentralized state system that allows each state to make its own curriculum in any way it wants.  So what do the states themselves decide to do?  Make them all the same!  I’m not arguing whether this is good or bad – it’s just that it’s not logical, given our state system.

Tom:    Well, the curricula never were all that different from the start.    No state has ever bothered to create its own unique way of educating its young, though theoretically that’s the whole point of having a decentralized state system.

Pedro:  How could they, since all the colleges are national in scope.  If Yale wants the Congress of Vienna on the curriculum you had better teach it, or no one in your state will be a Bulldog.

Limato: Yeah, every college is national, even the ones run by the states!  They all take kids from the entire country. So since we have what amounts to a national system of higher education, the high schools have to fall in line and produce a similarly national course of study.

Pedro:  In the end, what we all care about is our country, not our state.  People don’t admit that, but it’s true.  We are Americans, not Delawarians or Nebraskans.  We don’t even have words for it.  The state, per se, is a pleasing fiction.

Limato: Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived, as Augustine said.

Pedro:  Quod erat demonstrandum. QED.  We don’t actually want the state school system; we want something else, but are unwilling to work for it.  We’d rather be deceived.

Peter Dodington

August 28, 2015


The Druids Dialogues VIII: State Aid to Public Education

The Setting: Druids Bar on 10th Avenue, across the street from our school.

Tom:    So when the grads moved away from the local districts, why did the districts turn to the state for help rather than the federal government?  Surely they could see that the nation could have helped them more than the state.

Pedro:  Good question; it didn’t make sense.  The problem was that their taxpayers were paying for benefits that they were not fully receiving, so they needed a way for the taxpayers to access those benefits.  That should have meant finding a way to share in the benefits being produced throughout the country, since that is where the benefits had gone to.  Their graduates didn’t just move within the state, they moved all over the country.  The solution, then, ought to have been to make some kind of national system where everyone could share equally in both the costs and the benefits from the schools.

Limato: Right.  The state could only solve part of the problem from the start, no matter what.

Tom:    And a national system would not necessarily have affected the operation of their local districts; they could still continue to provide local services to the local community, and local benefits to the parents and children, as always.  It’s just that the benefits to the non-parent part of their supporters would now be part of a national system, since that is where their benefits, the benefits provided by the mobile grads, took place.  The local system would serve the needs of the local parents, and the national system the needs of the rest of the population.

Limato: And this wouldn't harm the local districts.  Just like a baseball team isn’t weakened simply because it is part of a league.  You want the league to be strong enough to set up rules and policies that involve all the teams and the overall economic health of the teams.   That doesn’t mean that the teams themselves have to be any weaker.  You could actually argue that strong leagues make for strong teams.

Bob:     But, as we all know, logic was not in the offing for this situation.  The local districts were running the show, and they evidently felt that getting the feds involved would somehow be detrimental to their efforts.  So they turned to the states instead.

Tom:    You could even say that the states were chosen because they were weaker than the national government.  There’s a scary thought.  The districts wanted help, but not too much, since they still wanted to run the show all by themselves.  So they picked the states, since they knew they would always be fairly weak.

Pedro:  Yes. The rationale for the entire system was still centered on the ideal of local control.  Even though it was clear that this couldn’t work economically, as long as the grads moved about, no one wanted to give up on that ideal.  With that in mind, the only acceptable solution was just a continuation of the status quo, or as close to that as possible, and the states could provide that, since they were really not strong enough to change much of anything.

Bob:     And this is clear from the fact that the state contribution was always called state “aid” to public education, as if the center of the program was still the local districts and the state was just helping them out in a secondary role.

Pedro:  Also, part of the problem was that at the time it seemed as if the schools were doing about as well as they ought.  We were, after all, the most successful country in the world, by far, so how could it be that our school system needed much help?  No one in the early 20th century did any serious comparisons of test scores between various countries.  So there was no need, it seemed, to make any dramatic changes in the local-control system.

Limato: You could say that the goal of state aid was not actually to improve the schools, but just to allow them to continue in their current local-control mode.  From the start it was not about better schools.  There actually is no good reason to involve the state in public education more than the districts or the nation.  There's a rationale for having districts -- the whole small is better argument, and there's a rationale for having a national system, since this takes care of the mobile grads problem, but there is no real reason to have the states involved.  There is nothing they do better than any other entity.

Pedro:  So they brought in the state to help with this problem of the mobile grads undercutting the support from the non-parents, but the state had the exact same problem with their own grads.  About a third of all residents in our country no longer live in the state they grew up in.  That means, in effect, that state residents are losing a third of the public benefit from the schools that they paid for.  (It’s actually more like a half, since you also have to factor in that the taxpayers move.)  And, yes, this loss is replaced by the benefit from grads from other states who move in, but these are, again, of an average level, so it brings the whole program down to an average level.  Any success over and above that average then is wasted money.

Tom:    So you can see why the states don't want to track the public benefit from the schools, since to do so would make clear just how much they were losing to other states.  If they wanted to show that their schools had, for example, lowered the crime rate by educating the kids, they would also have to show that about half of this was benefiting residents of other states, not their own residents, the ones who paid for it.

Limato: Ergo, no data on the public benefit from the schools, so no demonstration of the benefit to the non-parents, so no incentive for them to support improvements, so the schools have to stay as they are: average and mediocre.

Bob:     Just what we all, in a way, chose from the start.  We valued so much this ideal that we could do it all by ourselves in our own little districts that we turned away from any plan that might actually improve the schools on a large scale.  We chose independence over success.

Tom:    But we still can’t see this even today; everyone still wants the schools to be more independent, more “free.”

Limato: What can you do?


Peter Dodington

August 20, 2015





The Druids Dialogues VII: The Parent Problem

Druids Bar on 10th Avenue in New York is quiet on a Friday afternoon some years ago, as four teachers sit with their Guinness.

Limato: So tell me about how the state would solve the problem of the mobile graduates and the local funding, back in the day.

Pedro:  In time, but first let’s get straight what was going on in those local districts before the state got involved.  One of the problems in understanding all this is that the parents were not affected by this flaw in the system, the flaw that the graduates moved away, taking their educational benefits with them.  From their point of view everything was still working fine.  Their kids were being educated, and they were still also getting the long-term benefits from the education.

Limato: How’s that?

Pedro:  Because they were their own kids, so of course they stayed in touch with them, and so shared in whatever success and benefit the kids achieved because of their schooling.  If a parent wants to know how his child’s algebra class affected his work as an adult, he can just ask the adult kid over the Thanksgiving table, no matter where the kid lives.  The parents have a built-in way to access, so to speak, the benefits from the education they have paid for.  In terms of their own kids, anyway.  Their part of the system is still working; they will always keep a connection to the graduates no matter where they go.  So they will see the long-term benefits of the education they support.

Tom:    And the non-parents don't.  They have no way to see how their support for education will help the kids as they grow up.  There’s no data on this, and they don’t personally know more than just a few of their neighbors’ kids.  So they have no incentive like the parents to support the current school program, since they won’t ever see the benefits from it.

Bob:     But the parents don’t support the schools simply to get a future benefit from their kid.  They support the schools so the kid will be happy and live well.  The benefit they themselves get is secondary.

Pedro:  True enough, but they still do want long-term benefits for the child.  Whether we should say they benefit from this or not is just a matter of what we mean by “benefit.”  Aren’t they happy when their kid succeeds?  Isn’t that a benefit?  And, of course, there is no doubt that their lives are simpler, and “better” in some sense, if the kid gets a job, has a family, has grandkids, etc.

Tom:    You could actually argue that what we all want for all the kids in our schools is the same thing: that they become “happy” and successful. It’s just that it is very hard to measure these things in the general population, so we have to look at things like the crime rate, or income levels, or marriage rates, to get any indication.  The point is that parents get to see some of this and the rest of the population doesn’t.

Limato: And it only affects their relationship with the school during the time their kids are in school; those 10 to 15 years or so.  During that time they have a strong incentive to support the educational goals of the schools since they know they will see how this helps the kids in the long run.  Once their kids graduate, though, they become like the rest of us, with no clear way to see the results of their school support.

Pedro:  True, and that brings up another reason why a lot of this gets ignored.  We all, or most of us, have been parents at some point.  (With a laugh, turning to Limato) And some without even knowing it.

Limato: (laughing) Why you lookin’ at me?

Pedro:  So we tend to remember how we felt about the schools at that time, since it was such an intense time of love for our kids.  So even after the kids are gone we still act like parents and  treat the schools as if they were providing us with that same kind of parental benefit that they used to.  We forget that now, as non-parents and members of the general population, we need something different.  We need to make the connection to those grads whom we are educating – it won’t just come to us as it did with our own kids. But we forget that.  We’ve been both parents and non-parents, but we let the parent mode dominate.

Tom:    So then we don’t realize that we need to do something about this lack of connection to the grads.  We think like a parent even though we aren’t, and this lets the problem fester.

Limato: So why can’t we just let the parents support the schools?  They have the incentive.

Bob:     Because, my dim-witted friend, they can’t afford it.  Didn’t we just go through all this? There are too few of them.  They need the money from the rest of the population.  That’s why we have public schools in the first place.  Parents are only a quarter of the population; they can’t do it alone.

Pedro:  And even if they could afford it, as sometimes does happen in suburban schools, they really are not all that good at supporting what the schools need, which are long-term solutions.

For example: suppose we decide we want better 7th grade math teachers.  So we set up a program to find these, and pay for their high quality, and train them well, and get them into the classroom.  This all costs money and time, spread out over many years, but will be well worth it in the long run.  But who will pay for this?  Not usually the parents.  Are they going to start paying extra when their kid is in the third grade? Even then they wouldn’t probably get the full benefit from the better 7th grade teachers, since it will take years to find and train them, and then a few more for them to reach their peak.  Their kid will be long gone by then.

This is why good private schools don’t pay for these long-term improvements out of tuition.  The parents don’t want to pay for something that won’t usually benefit them.  The schools have to set up some kind of “campaign” and get outside donors for things like better teachers.  Parents have too short a window to want to spend money on this. They will pay for better lunches, or a new rec. program that starts in the spring – things that will happen soon, but not long-term substantial changes in the structure of the whole school.

Tom:    We already have parent-only supported schools all around – day-care centers, for example.  They meet in church basements and pay their teachers less than the minimum wage.  That’s what true parent-only local control looks like.

Limato: So why does everyone keep talking about this?

Pedro:  Good question.


Peter Dodington

August 14, 2015