National Public Education

The Fallacy of “Choice” in Public Education


One of the arguments one often hears for the privatization of public education is that we ought to have a “choice” as to what kinds of schools we attend.  In a world where, it is said, there is so much choice already, such as on the internet, why should we have to put up with this “one size fits all” government-run school system?  “Choice” is an American right, they say; it is what makes us “exceptional.”  We should naturally have the right, then, to choose from several different kinds of education for our children, such as charter schools, voucher plans, home schooling, religious schools, etc.

But this view doesn’t make sense.  It ignores the distinction between public and private programs.  “Choice” is a valid concept for a private, market-based transaction, such as when you are buying a new pair of shoes, but does not have a similar validity in a public program like public education.  The whole point of a public program is that we are making a collective project; we are sharing our resources so that we can produce something better than what we could do individually.  In that shared, government-run program, the concept of “choice” will never have the importance that it has in a private transaction.  How this works in public education is fairly clear.

If you get to choose something, and so have a “choice,” you also get to pay for it.  Why would anyone else pay for it?  It’s your decision; you are getting the benefit from it.  So if we really did have “choice” for individuals in public education, what would that mean?  Can you, alone, afford to build a school?  Or a gym, or labs, or hire a calculus teacher? Schools are expensive, like fire engines, power plants, and other things we collectively pay for through public programs.  If we want to treat them like simple consumer goods, like shoes, and so have complete “choice” over how we buy them, we would then also have to pay for them all by ourselves, and so would have to settle for a much lower level of quality.

If we want good schools, we need the help of other taxpayers.  But once you involve these other people you are going to have to let them in, so to speak, on the project. If it’s a cooperative effort, the choices have to be made cooperatively, not individually.  There is no way around this.  Of course we would all like to be able to afford our own private way of educating our children, and the “choice” that goes with this, but most of us can’t afford it.

The whole concept is illogical.  Who is, after all, making this choice?  Obviously, the parents of the children involved.  It’s not a “choice” for the general public, but for the parents with school-aged children.  But who is paying for these schools?  Parents only make up a quarter of our taxpayers.  By far the main supporters of the public schools are the non-parent general public.  So why don’t they get a “choice” about how to spend their money?  Why is a quarter of the population allowed to choose what they want, but the rest of us don’t?  It might make sense for the parents to have “choice” if, in fact, the parents were paying the full cost of the schools, but they aren’t.  The whole concept, then, is illogical and unstable, and the general public will eventually refuse to support it.

Furthermore, we like collective projects.  Let’s look at a middle-school playground, the source of much wisdom.  There, the lonely kid standing off by himself has the “choice” of what game to play that day.  He is free to choose.  Great.  But all the rest of the kids, the ones in the games and other collective activities, no longer have that “choice.”  They have already agreed to play by the rules of the game they are playing, and that’s fine with them.  They don’t have “choice;” they have collective, shared action.  They are doing something together with each other and that is more fun than being alone and having total “choice”.

Collective, shared activities produce better outcomes and are more enjoyable.  But once you are in them, you don’t get “choice.”  You have to abide by the collective decisions that were made when the program was set up. We did “choose” the public school system, a long time ago, and we chose the government to run it.  It didn’t just happen; people voted for it, since it was a good way to share the costs with the entire population and so produce a much better education for our children.  And, yes, that decision does limit how much free choice we now have in that system, but it is well worth it.   The collective, shared benefits far outweigh the value of any individual “choice.”

Peter Dodington

May 6, 2017



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



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