National Public Education

A Private Firehouse and the Charter School Fallacy

Suppose your fire department were not doing well – they don’t respond quickly, their equipment is out-dated, some fires are not even put out – so you and your neighbors decide to make your own.  You find some unused space in an old firehouse, you get some trucks, and hire your own firefighters. It works; the service is better. You finance this by using a share of the revenue from the regular public fire department, since now they don’t have to worry about your neighborhood.   It’s only fair that they give you back at least some of your tax dollars since you aren’t using their services.

Would this work?  Would we allow certain neighborhoods to set up their own private fire departments?  Why not?  What is wrong with this kind of arrangement?  Thinking about this helps us understand what is wrong with charter schools, since they, too, seek to set up a private program in the midst of a public one, and fund it with public funds.

Let’s start with a simple question.  Would a private fire department help the regular fire department get better?  Would its success somehow increase the support for the regular program?  It doesn’t seem likely.  The whole point of setting up the private program was to turn away from the regular program, not help it.  You set up the private program so you can succeed; not so that the regular program can.  Private businesses may learn from each other, but they don’t usually help each other.

So you cannot argue that a charter school that is doing well will somehow help the overall school program.  It doesn’t matter how well the charter schools do, any more than it would matter how good your private firehouse was.   That’s not the point.  The point is whether this success helps the regular schools.  I don’t see how it could.  The charter schools are set up purposely to have as little connection to the public program as possible, so how could they affect it?  You can’t argue that by simply doing well they will improve the schools.  Private schools do well all the time; some are terrific.  Does that ever change the level of success of the public schools?  It’s true that one public school’s success does help another other public school, but that’s only because they are in the same system; they both have the same boss, so he or she can use the one to help the other.  That doesn’t work for a private program.

Secondly, is it fair to use part of the public funds, “your” part, to fund your private firehouse or your charter school?  To answer that we have to go back and consider the goals of any public program, and why it is funded by public money in the first place.

Why do we have a publicly funded fire department?  Is it just to put out our own fires?  If that were all we wanted, wouldn’t it make more sense to just have a private program, one we could call on whenever we had a fire on our own property?  Why bother with all this public bureaucracy and taxes?  Just call a private guy with a truck and he will put out the fire.

So we don’t have a public fire department just to put out our own fires; we have a public program to put out other people’s fires.  That’s what makes it “public.”  Fires spread, so it matters to us whether other people put out their own fires.  That means that we are willing to pay to put out their fires as well as ours.  That’s the difference between a public and a private program.  You see there is no private solution to putting out other people’s fires.  If we want to do that, we have to involve these other people in the process, which means we have to make a public program that involves everyone.  Because fires spread they cause a public problem, so they have to be dealt with through a public program.

Education is also a public problem.  How your neighbor educates his child affects you.  There is a public benefit, such as a better economy, less crime, and a more unified society, from a better overall level of education.  This public benefit is why we have a public school program.  If we just wanted to educate our own children, obviously a private program would be better (if we could afford it).

For any public program to work, everyone has to be in it.  That’s the whole point.  You are paying to solve other people’s problems, not just your own, so this only works when those other people are involved.   If someone drops out he is lessening the benefit that the rest of the people are paying for, namely his own correct behavior.  If everyone is paying for a way to influence other people’s behavior, you have to keep all those other people in the program or it won’t work.

So it is not fair to fund a private fire house, or a charter school, with part of the public revenue.  That money was not intended to come back to each private citizen; it was paid into the program for an entirely different reason – to solve a public problem.  The whole point was to solve other people’s problems, not your own, so you don’t get to use the money yourself.  Taking your “own” money out of a public program is like the boy who quits the game and takes his ball home.  He ruins the game.  That game, or any collective, public-like activity, doesn’t work unless the whole gang agrees to play.  When you leave, you hurt the others.

So the logic of a charter school doesn’t make sense.  It isn’t just a matter of which program produces better scores.  There’s a logical flaw in the entire charter school system.  It’s a mis-use of public funds; funds that were intended for a completely different purpose.  Since it is using public money, it has to help the public, not just its own parents and children, and it clearly does not do this.

The media is fond of saying that we have a problem with the “privatization” of public education.  But that’s not really the problem.  There would be nothing wrong with people setting up truly private schools on their own with their own funds.  The problem, rather, is that charter school advocates are trying to set up a public program, funded with public funds, which can never achieve the public goals intended.  A charter school is a poorly thought-out and incorrectly managed public program, that makes about as much sense as a private firehouse.

Peter Dodington

November 26, 2016



The Public/Private Charter School Fallacy

Having just read an excellent post on jerseyjazzman about problems with the data that show that charter schools are doing well, I am inspired to comment further on the fundamentals of charter-school tomfoolery.  For one, the entire concept that these programs are both public and private cannot be true.

The supporters of charter schools are fond of saying that charters are both public and private, and so perhaps provide the benefits of each kind of program.  They seem to be public, like the other schools, funded through the government, but they also operate like a private school, free from the public bureaucracy.  But is this actually possible?  Can a program be both public and private?  I don’t think so, and wonder why we let these statements pass without criticism.

It is said that there are other public/private organizations, like public utilities.  True, the phone company, for example, used to be run as a private company but received public funds.  But charter schools don’t look at all like phone companies.  They were heavily regulated by the government, the source of those funds. As they should be.  When the source of those public funds is the individual tax payments of each resident, who is then paying an equal share of the cost of the program, you have to make sure that each resident also gets an equal benefit.  That would not happen if you just let the company operate as an unregulated private concern, where the benefit is determined by the market and so varies extensively.

Are there normally other public/private organizations?   Could you run your local grocery store with government funds?  Would anyone want that?  Or, from another angle, would it work to take a public program, like the fire department, and make a private part just for your own neighborhood, which you could run as a private business but get funding from the whole city?  Of course you might like having your own fire department – it might respond more quickly and know you better – but what about the rest of the people in the city?  Would they ever put up with paying for this special program that only served one neighborhood?  What would they be getting out of that?

The charter school advocates like to say that their schools help the overall program, but the firehouse example shows how false this is.  The whole point of that private firehouse would not be to help the rest of the fire department, but rather to get as far away from it as possible.  There would be no connection from the one to the other, by the design of the private program itself.  If something is private it’s not also part of a public program.  It’s the opposite.  In a public program, yes, the success of one part does help the others, since they all have the same boss, so he or she can use one to help the others.  None of this works if one of the elements is private.

What has happened here is that the charter school movement keeps changing how it presents itself so that sometimes it seems to be private and sometimes public.  When it wants to claim that it helps the other public schools it says it is part of that public system, and then when it wants to say it avoids the public bureaucracy it claims to be private.  But you cannot be sometimes one and sometimes the other.  If you are both, you have to be both all the time, simultaneously, and that is impossible.

One of the main points of trying to define anything is to help us figure out what this thing is going to be in the future, so we can then plan how to deal with it. This means that the definition we use has to work in the future, not just the present.  You cannot allow definitions that change over time, being now this, now that.  They have to stay one thing or the other.  You can’t use a definition that a charter school is sometimes public and sometimes private; it doesn’t allow you to figure it out.  It doesn’t work the way a definition should.

This insistence on the public/private nature of charter schools seems to be, sadly, just a way to confuse the issue and encourage the public to throw up their hands and say that maybe charters are okay, since it’s too hard to figure them out.  It’s a kind of smoke screen that puts an element of doubt into the whole argument, but in doing so favors the view that this might be a valid way to educate our children.  It’s a weapon to help the charter schools gain acceptance.

So we need to call them on this.  They have to come down on one side or the other.  To me it seems obvious that charters are a public program.  They are not a private program if they are funded by the government, no matter how much they try to look like one.  They’re a public program and so need to show how they are benefiting the entire population, not just their own students and families.  It doesn’t matter how well they benefit those families; the point is that they are not benefiting the public, the ones who are paying for this program.  So charter schools can’t work, and will never work.

The whole problem with so many of these current ideas on how to improve the schools is not that they are private.  If people want to make private schools with their own private money that is fine with me; more power to them.  The “privatization” is actually not the problem, it’s that these schemes are not private; they still want to use public money and so are still part of the public system.  The problem is not that they want to be private; it’s that they are poorly run public programs.

Peter Dodington

November 19, 2016



Schools and American “Anti-Intellectualism”

Emily Dickinson

In my discussions with friends about how to improve our public schools, I have often heard the argument that the real cause of our low-performing schools is “American anti-intellectualism.”  In the end, the thought is, we don’t have a good educational system because that is not “who we are.”  We’re a practical people, intent on solving simple practical problems in our own back yard, so to speak, and don’t have time for the niceties of deep intellectual thought.  We may be good at some of the physical sciences, and, of course, business, but French paintings bore us.

By this argument, then, there is no solution to our weak school system; it is what we want.  Perhaps this is unfortunate, but it’s in our DNA; it’s part of our “American exceptionalism.”   All we really want is a kind of mediocre, local, success.  Our finest schools, like the ones in our top suburbs, are not the best in the world, or even in the country.  We don’t even keep track of this.  We only care whether they are the best in their local area.  The Old World may have emphasized academic excellence, but here in the New World we do things differently.

But there are several problems with this view.  Why, for one, are we then so upset about our school system?  Why are we so intent on improving it through these privatization schemes if, indeed, its achievements are not a matter of concern to us?  If what we want is a kind of local, but not national or international, success, isn’t that what we already have?  In reality, isn’t it clear that we do want better schools, and that we all assume we are quite capable of achieving this?

And secondly, where is the actual evidence that our children are not capable, or not interested, in achieving intellectual excellence?  In my Latin classes I used the same British textbook, The Cambridge Latin Series, that is used throughout the world. This was never a problem.  The kids from Prospect Avenue in the Bronx could memorize the forms of the Dative as well as anyone. They didn’t think there was something holding them back.  Of course there were difficulties: kids dropped out, or missed school, or gave up, but this was not because of academic ability.  It was because they had to work late, or take care of their sisters, or their mother.  Once they put their minds to it, all my students, no matter where they were from, could do “world class” academic work.

So where is the problem?  Where is the anti-intellectualism?   If our children can learn an intellectual subject like Latin as well as anyone else in the world, they can learn other subjects, too.  We don’t have children who have trouble learning.

It’s perfectly logical that we might shy away from some high-end academic subjects because we don’t feel that they are “ours” in some sense.  Academic subjects which represent the ideals of the old country may not seem suited to our ideals in the new.  Perhaps we don’t teach Shakespeare well not because we can’t, but because we want to focus on our own writers; we want to be a new country, not just a colony of the old.  So this kind of “anti-intellectualism” is actually an indication of an interest in intellectual subjects, on our own terms, not a rejection of them.  We just need to work more, then, on Emily Dickinson, Faulkner, Lincoln, et al.  That would not be impossible.

We don’t have weak schools because we have some built-in aversion to intellectual matters; it’s the other way around.  We have chosen to make a mediocre school system, for a variety of shortsighted and emotional, it seems to me, reasons, and this had led us to a feeling that we must have some innate intellectual antipathy.  Why else should such a clever nation do so poorly?  But we have it backwards, as our world-class children show us.  All the skills and interests are there; it’s in our DNA.  We just have to fix the schools so that we can let these bloom.

Peter Dodington

November 14, 2016



Why Teachers Dislike Charter Schools


As the media never tire of pointing out, the people who are in charter schools all love them, and the only ones who are against them, it seems, are those teachers and their Union, no doubt because they want the “extra pay and less work” a Union job supplies.  We seldom hear from the teachers themselves, though.  (In fact, almost every quote in the media seems to come from someone who is already benefiting from a charter school.  Where are the comments from the average man on the street?)  To help remedy this unbalanced coverage, I, a sometime teacher, would like to offer the following comments.

To me it seems that teachers are against charters because they, almost alone, can see how traditional schools do help kids grow into successful adults and provide a public benefit to us all.  They know the kids; they see them grow and change in front of their eyes, so they have direct evidence that the schools, even in their current somewhat dis-functional state, do provide some part of what we want from a public program.  They do work, though not as well as we would like.  They are helping the kids mature into the kind of adults we want in our society.

Teachers, like everyone else who works with young people, don’t just want them to do better on tests, competitions, and awards; they want them to do better in life.  You can see this when a child comes back to visit after they have graduated.  The biggest smile on a teacher’s face is not when his or her student wins some award or, Lord knows, does well on a standardized test; it’s when they come back ten years later with a good job, a nice boyfriend, and plans to change the world.  That’s what matters; that is what we are all paying for in this public program.

The problem is that teachers are virtually alone in this knowledge of the public benefit from public education.  There is no data on the adult success of the graduates of the schools.  The only ones who can see this are the kids themselves, their parents, and the teachers who have worked with them.  No one else has any idea that it actually happens.  No public schools, in this country, keep track of their graduates.  The public has no way to telling whether getting a kid to pass algebra actually helps him get a decent job and so keeps him off the streets and out of trouble.  We all have a hunch that this does probably happen, but there is no direct evidence of it from the schools we are supporting.  Only the child’s family and his teachers know.

Charter schools turn away from this public benefit.  The whole reason they exist is that it seems that these long-term public benefits do not really occur in the public schools (since there is no direct evidence of them), so we need to focus just on the immediate private needs of the children and families involved.  They purposely break the ties with the overall public system, the bureaucratic apparatus that tries to produce a public benefit from the schools, and pull back to just making the classrooms work better.  Privatization, in general, is repudiation of the notion that the public programs provide a public benefit.  It’s an argument that the public part of the program is not working, so we need to make it private.

But teachers know better.  They can see that the kids do grow up and so benefit us all.  They know the kids.  That’s why they are against charter schools.  They don’t want to abandon the effort to make good, happy and beneficial adults, which would mean focusing just on the grades, awards and test scores of the students.  They want to make a better society, not just a better school.

Peter Dodington

November 6, 2016



The Flat World and Education — A Review

Linda Darling-Hammond has written a thorough and thought-provoking book about the need to reform our schools.  There is much I agree with and much that I question, but I feel she is on the right track and hope that she will continue down the road she is on.

Reversing the usual order in discussing a teacher’s performance, I would like to start with the problems.  The first is that she mentions “education,” not “public education” in the title of her book.  But her subject is not “education,” any more than a book on public health is about “health,” or a book about public water programs is about “water.”  The whole problem she wants to discuss is the “public,” governmental, nature of this school system.  She knows this, and doesn’t discuss anything about education in general, such as private schools or “how education hampers creativity.”  She is a public education scholar; let’s call her subject what it is, “public education.”

Secondly, the subtitle is “How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future.”  This emphasis on equity is misplaced.  In general, the problem in the schools is excellence, not equity.  We could make the system as uniform as we want and still have mediocre schools.  We don’t just want equality of outcomes; we want good outcomes.  The thought behind this push for equity seems to be that the good, wealthy schools will always stay that way, so we can get to excellence by just bringing all the other schools up to their level.  But there is only so much money in the pot.  The states, in particular, are broke.  Pushing for the same outcomes everywhere is bound to push all outcomes towards the middle, not the top.

There is a legal argument for equity, since the state constitutions require it, but I don’t think that is where we should put our efforts, either.  I just want to make each school better.  I taught in the South Bronx and I want those schools to have more resources, but I don’t want them necessarily to look just like Scarsdale, in the suburbs, where I also taught.  Scarsdale has its own problems; it needs help, too.  The only solution is to make them all better.

And thirdly, Ms Darling-Hammond takes a purely in-house view of the problems of our schools.   Like all education professors, it seems, she is long on noting what is wrong, and very short on devising concrete plans to remedy the situation that will work.  In a way, she reminds me of a factory worker sitting on the loading dock with his friends, running through all the things that management “ought” to do.  There’s a certain value in this, but also a certain frustration.

Unlike those factory workers, we citizens don’t have to just sit and complain.  We own the factory; it’s our money that runs it.  We can change it.  But that means figuring out how it affects us, and what we want, and how we can bring this about.  Ms Darling-Hammond does not mention the words “public benefit” in this book.  She doesn’t see that there is a connection between the schools and the public that is the key to real change.

But she comes close.  She gets as far as seeing that the center of the problem is not in the schools themselves, but in the districts and the state legislatures.  And, that it would also help to get the federal government more involved.  I particularly like how she suggests that the federal government could help teacher preparation through national scholarships, incentives, a national assessment for applicants, and uniform licensing policies.  That would be great, but it is hard to see how it could get around the Constitutional mandate for state control.  Also I like her suggestion that ESEA be revised to stipulate that states provide the level of “opportunity indicators” in each school, not just test scores, if they want federal funds.  These indicators specify things such as the quality of the books, materials, classrooms, advanced courses, teachers, etc. in use.  This would put the emphasis on the quality of the school, where it ought to be.

So she is getting there.  She has moved from just looking at the schools as the source of the problems to seeing that the governments that run them, or, in the federal case, not allowed to run them, are part of the problem.  She just needs to move one step further and look at how the taxpaying public, the source of the funding for those governments and therefore the schools, is a crucial aspect of the problem and its solution.

A few lovely comments that need to be quoted.  That Singapore is as multi-racial as we are, yet has managed to organize a national program that benefits all, thereby shredding the argument that America is “too diverse” to have a national program.  And that Finland has “lean national standards” to assist its local districts in the planning and implementation of good practices, which puts to rest the complaint that a national program would smother local district policies.  We, too, could have a “lean” national presence.  And, finally, that increases in spending at the state level are generally higher in areas other than education, for all the complaints about how much we spend on public education.  The increases for prisons are particularly remarkable.

I’m looking forward to her next book, when she starts to incorporate public taxpayer attitudes into her arguments.

Peter Dodington

October 29, 2016