National Public Education
11Nov/170

The “Too Big for one School System” Fallacy

One of the favorite arguments in favor of having a state-run decentralized school system in this country is that we are too big to have one, centralized, national school system.  Other countries that have national programs are smaller and more homogenous, like Japan or Finland, and so can run their schools from one national capital.  We are too big and too diverse to do that effectively.  We need some kind of local divisions, like the states, to respond to all our various local needs.

There is some logic to this.  Many large organizations divide their work into divisions or units that then can accomplish the work more efficiently.  Your local supermarket divides itself up into “produce,” “meat,” “dairy,” etc., so that each unit can focus on its own “local” problems.  That works.

But that is not, in fact, what we do in our state-run decentralized school system.  We haven’t set the states up as divisions of a larger organization so that the whole will work better.  Each state is a separate entity on its own; it raises it own money from its own residents and spends this as it pleases.  It’s not a division of a larger program, the way the produce department is a division of the supermarket.  There is no larger program, since we specifically forbid there to be a national program.  Each state is its own completely separate operation as far as education is concerned.

No supermarket, or any other organization, would ever let its divisions operate totally on their own, raising their own money and spending it as they wished.  That would not improve the organization.  Each unit would just go its own way so that the result would be varied.  Some would improve, but others would get worse, and the end result would just be stagnation.  It is only by coordinating those units that the whole scheme could ever produce a better situation.  But that is precisely what we don’t do in public education. There is not way to coordinate the state programs.  Since they raise their own money they can do whatever they want with it.

So we may be “too big” to run our school system just from Washington, but that problem will not be solved by our current system of autonomous states. What would solve it would be to divide up our educational program into something like state programs, and then coordinate these through a central, national, organization.  That would work.  But that would mean that the national government would have to have some say over the state programs.

The key to that kind of a solution is to share the control of the schools between the local units and the centralized organization.  There is nothing wrong with local control; it is the right way to respond to the needs of the families in the schools, and should be put into effect as much as possible.  However, you still need centralized oversight so that the whole program can move forward.  You can’t just let each local program go its own way if you want any kind of long-term improvement.

This is not rocket science.  Every school program throughout the world, even in very decentralized programs such as Canada's, allows for restrictions on the local units set by the central government.  These central organizations set standards in various academic and operational areas, and have the ability to enforce these.  They can then change the local programs for the better.  That’s why their school systems improve.

It’s interesting, too, why we even bring up this issue.  Why are we worrying about how to educate all the children in the country, anyway?  Haven’t we decided that we only want a local, state-run, program, not a national one?  So shouldn’t we be worried about how to make Nebraska’s school system work, not the nation’s?  We go around thinking that we have solved this national “too big” problem, but that’s not even the right question.  It has nothing to do with what should be the real problem for us, namely how to run a good state program.  Why are we even bringing this up?

What this implies is that we don’t actually want just a good program for each state.  What we really want is national success, for everyone.   We bring up this "too big" problem because we think that it proves that we can get that kind of national success through our state system.  But we can't; an autonomous state program with no national oversight doesn't work.  If what we really want is national success, why don't we simply set up some kind of national program?

Peter Dodington

November 11, 2017

 

 

 

4Nov/170

Problems with Choice Plans

Lately I have written two letters to editors.  The first was to my local newspaper, the Decorah, (Iowa) News.

Some Problems with Educational “Choice”.

Dear Editor:

It seems to me that there are several problems with “Educational Savings Plans”, vouchers, and other plans to give back public funds to parents so that they can pay for private schools.  These schemes not only take money away from the public schools; they also have internal inconsistencies that don’t make sense.

The numbers just don’t add up.  If we were talking about a child in a private school, it would make sense that parents could get their money back when they took their child out of school.  They put the money for that child in, so they ought to be able to get it back.  But we are not talking about a private program; public schools are publicly funded by the entire community.  The cost of educating that child was borne by everyone in the state, not just the parents.  That’s the point of public education; we all share the costs (and the benefits).  Why, then, are only the parents getting back a refund?  Shouldn’t the rest of the population get one, too?

Your average taxpayer supports public education because he or she gets a benefit from a better-educated populace.  Public schools lower the crime rate, increase productivity, improve our health, and create a more civil and unified society.  When that child drops out of the school system, then, each taxpayer is getting less of that public benefit, yet is still paying the same amount of tax.  They all should get a refund.

And the amount the parents are offered doesn’t make sense, either.  They typically get the average amount each taxpayer pays into the state school system, which in Iowa is said to be $6,366.  But the parents didn’t spend all of this on their own child; they spend it on every child in the state.  So not only should each taxpayer get some (small) amount back when a child drops out, but the parents should actually get the same small amount.  That is the amount they actually contributed to their own child’s education in a public school, so that is what they should get back.  Your taxes don’t just go for your own child’s education.

So why do the state legislatures agree to these illogical schemes?  Because they profit from them.  The amount that they give back to the parents, though more than it should be, is still considerably less than the amount they save by not educating that child.

It’s not rocket science.  There are many more taxpayers than there are children, so the cost to each taxpayer is considerably less than the actual cost of a child’s education.  It probably costs the state, say, about $20,000 to educated each child, as it does in private schools, but this amount, times the number of children, is spread out over all the thousands and thousands of taxpayers, so each taxpayer only has to pay the $6,366.  The state then gives back to the parents only the taxpayers’ cost, not the full cost for the education of the child.  This is only logical; you wouldn’t want to give back to the parents more than they put in.  So, each time a child drops out, the state gains the per-child cost, since they no longer have to provide this, but only loses the per-taxpayer cost, which is much smaller. They profit from each withdrawal.

And where does the money for that profit come from?  Out of the pocket of the general taxpayer, who is still paying the same amount of tax as before but now is getting less public benefit from this expenditure.  Why any tax-paying citizen would ever agree to such a scheme is a mystery to me.

Note that I am not saying anything against private education.  There is nothing wrong with sending your child to a private school.  What is wrong is to try to pay for this with public funds; it just doesn’t work.

 

The second was to the Des Moines Register.

Educational “Choice” and Democracy

People often debate whether vouchers and other educational “choice” plans will produce better or worse schools.  That’s not the main problem.  By trying to “give back” tax dollars, these plans undermine the basic principles on which our democracy was founded.

The idea behind educational choice is that taxpayers ought to be able to take back “their” money that they paid in educational taxes and use this to fund private programs.  This is quite different, though, from the state actually passing a law that public funds could be used for private schools.  No one is suggesting that, since it is pretty clear that no one would vote for it.  Rather the idea is that money that has already been assigned to the public schools can now be transferred to a private enterprise.

That is the problem, and why this plan violates the principles of our democracy.  Those funds were approved by the normal voting process for our state legislators and the plans they adopt. What we approved, though, was a public school program.  If the government now chooses to spend that money on something else, they are, in effect, violating that agreement.

If we allow this to go unchallenged, we will end up with problems considerably more serious than just how to educate our children.  Such a plan undermines the whole process of voting for any program.  If we can “take back” the money we voted to spend on a program, why bother to vote at all?  What would be the point of having elections, legislatures, or even government itself, if the votes of the people can be reversed so easily?  The entire concept of giving back tax dollars is not only detrimental to public education, it is detrimental to democracy itself.

 

In response to both these letters, some have argued that, "well, if we can't have these plans, what can we have?  At least they do something to help the schools."  Quite so. Criticizing these "choice" plans does not totally solve our public school problems.  We still need to come up with an improvement that will work.  Once we focus on that, though, I think we will see the need for a national school system.

Peter Dodington

Nov. 4, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7Oct/170

Education and the Commercial Mindset by Samuel E. Abrams

 

In this 2016 book, Abrams, a former teacher who now is a professor at Teacher’s College in New York, sets out to sort through all the various attempts to run public schools as private businesses in the past 30 years.  As he says at the end of his opening chapter, some business practices work well, and others do not.  He looks at just about every business scheme tried in US public education, starting with Chris Whittle’s “Channel One” TV segment back in the early 90’s (which I remember having to sit through each morning as a young homeroom teacher), and ending with a look at programs in Sweden and Finland.  Although Abrams finds that just about every one of these attempts have had limited, at best, success, he still remains sanguine about the concept.  From my point of view, though, he misses several major points that should have been addressed.

For example, he introduces the book by telling about how he was given the task of programing his school’s schedule one year, and found that a private company could help him do this better than the company used by the board of education.  It seemed that a private business was simply better than a public approach.  He then goes on to talk about Milton Friedman’s argument that parents should have the ability to choose private ways to educate their children, at public expense, and Myron Lieberman’s ideas in Privatization and Educational Choice.  He quotes Lieberman as saying that if a public school can contract with a private custodial service to clean its floors, they also ought to be allowed to do this for instructional services.

The problem is that this view totally ignores the fundamental difference between public and private goods and services.  There is no public benefit from cleaning a floor, but there is from educating a child. That’s why, then, we have public schools, but private cleaning companies. So, yes, you can use a private business to clean floors, or program schedules, or manage an office, but education itself is something quite different.

Ironically, it was Milton Friedman, himself, who spelled this out clearly.  In his chapter on education in Capitalism and Freedom he admits that education has to run by the government, not a private organization, since it always produces a public benefit to the general public, not just to the children and parents in the school, and there is no way to get that general public to pay for that benefit other than through taxes paid to the government.  As he says, the education of a child improves society, not just the child.

This whole idea seems lost on Abrams.  The words “public benefit” do not occur in this book.  He devotes one paragraph to the differences between public and private goods, but seems to think this a minor matter.  In the same way, he ignores the differences between the needs of the general public, who are the primary supporters of the schools, and the needs of the parents of school-age children.  In his view the customer of the public schools is the child and his family, not the general taxpayer, even though there are four times as many of the latter.  The schools are paid for primarily by non-parents.

This means that Abrams has no way to see why these private schemes so often failed.  They were dealing only with a quarter of the funding stream for the entire operation, that of the parents and children.  They forgot, or didn't realize, that the rest of the money was coming from public funding, and that had to mean public oversight concerning such things as equality, and the bureaucracy that goes with the assurance of that equality; concepts that are antithetical to private business.  As such he can only list these failures, not explain them.

This curious blindness to the public nature of public education comes out in the last chapter on the success of the schools in Finland.  Here he seems to admit that a government-run, non-private approach is the best of all.  He specifically mentions that the Finns have rejected all efforts to privatize their schools, and have thrived.  He runs through all the wise things they have done, such as having ex-teachers in almost all their high administrative positions, and replacing mass testing efforts with selective sampling techniques, and serving a good hot lunch to every child, and always going outside for recess.  He clearly puts this chapter at the end because it sums up the right way to run a school system.

Yet he never makes the connection with this success and the fact that this is a fully public, government-run program, not a private one.  He simply tries to show that the Finns do use good “business” techniques in their school system.  What that seems to come down to, then, is that perhaps there is a role for “business” practices in public schools, but only as a handmaid to the fully public nature of the school system.  Yes, the schools can hire private companies to clean the floors, but not to run the schools.

Peter Dodington

October 7, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16Sep/170

“The War on Public Schools”


Erika Christakis has written a good piece in this month’s (October, 2017) Atlantic magazine on how public education helps to bring us all together in a stable, workable, democracy.  She points out that what we need is more civics education, more emphasis on the social, cooperative, values taught in school, and a realization that the “privatization” of the schools will destroy something valuable.  All this is great, but, of course, I also wish she had pursued some of her points more thoroughly.

There is much to like; for one, simply the term “public” in the title.  That, in itself, is a big step in the right direction.  Only a few years ago this very same magazine did a large survey on “American Education.”  As I wrote then, this is not the problem.  We already know how to “educate” people quite well.  What we don’t know how to do is run a public program that does this well.  The main problem is the “public” part of public education.

Secondly, she brings up the topic of the “public benefit” from public education.  Finally someone is talking about this.  She points out that one of the key “stakeholders” in public education is the public itself, i.e. the nation as a whole, and that the emphasis on individual rights and choices ignores the importance of this aspect of the public schools.

She also reminds us that America has never been at the top of the world in terms of student achievement.  We have been the best at getting more of our population into school, but we have never been the best academically.  That, too, is an important point to remember, since it implies that if we want to get to that high level now, we probably need to make some major changes in the entire program.  Simply going back to what we have always done will not get us to the top academically.  We need to do something new. (Of course, this is exactly why people argue that we need to privatize the schools; what I would like to point out is that we could also simply build a new, and better, public school system, one that, for example, had a more centralized structure.)

And finally, and best of all, she explains how illogical it is to want to have a “choice” in how we educate our children in a public school system.  She points out that of course everyone likes this idea of having more control over their child’s schooling, but that the whole idea really doesn’t make sense.  It would be like choosing to get, as she says, a free gym membership for oneself by using funds allocated for better parks; getting an essentially private benefit from something that was supposed to be for the public, for everyone.

This is a great argument.  It brings out exactly the central problem with the whole privatization movement; that these plans are a misuse of the intent of the people who are actually funding these schemes, the public taxpayers.  In her example, these people paid for a park, not gym memberships.  A public program is, by definition, for everyone, so it will always be more or less uniform for all.  In such a system, "choice" doesn't make sense.

My only problem with Ms Christakis is that she doesn’t stress this point enough.  She turns away from it in the next sentence, saying that she doesn’t want to discuss school choice, since, as she says, the evidence for these schemes is “mixed.”  By this I gather she means that some charter and voucher programs do produce better results than the traditional schools.

But this is the same mistake everyone makes about the issue of charter schools and the like.  The point is not whether they are better than the traditional schools or not. There’s a deeper problem. The whole concept is wrong; it’s a misuse of public funds.  Looking at whether charter schools do a good job would be like, in Ms Christakis’ example, looking at whether the gym memberships were “better” for us than the park program.  You see, that’s not the point.  Even if the gym memberships were better, that would not negate the central problem with such a scheme; it would still be wrong to use public funds for a private benefit.

So, she is well on her way to making a valuable contribution to the debate on public education, but still has a way to go.  She sees the outlines of the central problems, but is not quite ready to address these core issues yet, or, perhaps, is not quite ready to try to get such controversial issues into print.  What is great, though, is that she brings up the “public” nature of the public school problem, for that is the key to its eventual solution.

 

Peter Dodington

September 16, 2017

9Sep/170

“Endangering Prosperity” by Eric Hanushek

Eric Hanushek et al. have written an excellent book on the economic implications of our weak public education system.  The authors put to rest many of the popular misconceptions about the schools.

First, just to review what everyone knows, on an international test of student achievement, such as the PISA exams (Program for International Student Assessment), the US ranks 32nd out of the 68 countries tested in math in 2011, in other words, just about at the bottom of the list of developed European and Asian countries.  The results are only slightly better for English skills.  All this is well known.

What is not so well known is that this poor showing is not caused by our diverse population.  All our students do poorly, rich and poor.  Among white students whose parents are college educated, less than half are at a proficient level in math, putting them below all the students, minorities included, in 16 other countries.  Our best students are nowhere near as good as the best students in many other counties.  Among white students in the US, only 9% performed at an advanced level, putting us, again, at the bottom of the developed world.  The problems of our educational system are not limited to our poor and minority communities.

As Hanushek points out, the US is not the only diverse country.  Canada, for example, has a similar level of diversity, but does much better than us educationally.  They also are a big country spread over a wide area, yet still seem to find a way to educate everyone.  It is not just the small homogenous countries that do well.

What Hanushek is worried about is that there is no doubt that these educational problems will affect our economy.  There can be no argument that educational level does not have an effect on economic growth.  The chart is right there on page 24 of this book.  All the countries with high test scores also have high rates of economic growth from 1960 to 2009.  And those with low test scores have low rates of growth.  The US is, again, about in the middle, below most of the wealthy countries in the world.

The authors also show that it is not simply the amount of money spent on education, or even the number of years of schooling offered, that makes a difference.  Strangely enough, it is how much the students actually learn that matters.  This is what is correlated with economic growth.

All this bodes ill for the future of US prosperity.  We are in trouble.  As Hanushek points out, many of our economic gains over the past two centuries have been linked to non-educational factors, such as our natural resources and our traditional support for new and innovative businesses.  And we also had an educational system that included a higher percentage of our population than any other country.  But none of this is still true today.  The rest of the world has caught up with us, and they have done so by educating their children to a higher level.  That is what we need to do if we want to continue to grow.

All this needs to be read by a wider audience.  The data in a book like this, written by professional economists, ought to be read by every state legislator and every member of the state departments of education, not to mention the federal Secretary of Education.  They are the ones in charge of our schools; it is up to them to find a way to improve them.  If they cannot do this, they need to be replaced by someone who can.

The only problem I have with this book is that Hanushek then blames teachers and particularly the teachers’ unions for these problems, saying that teachers have uniformly opposed innovations in public education, such as vouchers and charter schools.

This may be true, but they oppose them for good reason.  Is there any evidence that these quasi-private schemes will ever improve the public school system?  Can we really make a public program better by making it more private?   Does that make sense?  Regardless of how well each one does, these schemes cannot solve the overall problem, since they have no way to address the entire public program.  They only work because they are separate from the rest of the program.  That is not a viable solution.

Still, I am thankful that Mr. Hanushek has written such a good book on the realities of the link between public education and economic prosperity.

Peter Dodington

September 9, 2017