National Public Education

James Meredith and Education Reform

James Meredith, the first Black man to graduate from the University of Mississippi, and someone who was shot and wounded while demonstrating for civil rights, is one of the heroes of our modern age.  I have nothing but respect for his courage and grit.  That said, I have to speak up about his views on how to improve our public schools, as they are expressed in a recent blog by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.  Mr Meredith is precisely the kind of man we need to influence if we ever want to fix our school system.  He has all the right ideas, but does not clearly see, I think, how to implement them.

Mr Meredith is totally against President Trump's views on public education, and is particularly annoyed that Trump has called his brand of education reform, "the civil rights issue of our time."  Mr Meredith points out that the policies the President favors actually harm most low-income people and so can hardly be called a "civil rights" issue. He says that what we need is a way to educate well all the people in this country, and that this can only be done with an all-embracing public school system, not these one-shot special programs that the President favors.  With all this I agree whole-heartedly.

Where I differ with Mr Meredith is his insistence that this can only be done through a locally-based effort; that the bureaucrats and politicians who are outside the local community are anathema.  He wants a system that is "driven by parents and teachers." At one point he says that he wants "well resourced and locally governed neighborhood public schools."  This is the problem.

You can't have both "well-resourced" and "locally governed" schools.  The two don't go together.  Of course there are some wealthy suburbs that are both, but that's the problem.  They're the only ones this works for.  For the rest of us it doesn't make sense. Almost all local district are not "well-resourced" and never can be if they rely totally on themselves.  They need outside money.  If you just rely on local funds you will always end up with the the kind of wide differences in the quality of the schools that we see today.  Isn't that obvious?

Local control works on an educational level, but it doesn't work financially.  You need outside money if you want all the schools for all the children to be excellent.  But you can't rely on that outside help and then tell them that they have no say in how it is used. If you do that they will stop helping you.  The "governing" part of the plan has to include the "resource" part if you want a long-term solution.

People say, "Well, they should just give us the money to make our local schools better." So, you want charity?  You think that will help you create excellent schools?  I've worked in church schools that were mostly supported just by local charitable contributions. They were nice, pleasant places, but they didn't teach any calculus, or anything else at that level.  People don't just give away something that valuable.

Mr Meredith knows this from his own work on civil rights.  He didn't march in order to create a local way to solve civil rights problems; the whole point was to influence the rest of the country; to draw distant supporters into the struggle so that together they could fight for justice.  The only people who were against outsiders were the local bigots. They're the ones who wanted a "local only" approach to these issues.  The marchers looked beyond the local situation and appealed to the general public, who then agreed with them and set about to change the laws for the entire country.  Then things changed for the better.

That's the kind of solution we need for public education.  We need to influence the entire population to get on board with support for the schools.  I, for one, believe that this population is in fact fully in favor of better schools for every child, just as they were for equal justice for minorities, and would be willing to change our laws to help bring this about.  But we can't do this if we keep saying that this is a "local only" problem.  We need to make it a national problem, with a national solution.

But, you will say, you just said that local control does work on an educational level. Won't we be harming the schools, then, if we make national laws to run them?  The answer is to emphasize both the local aspect of the schools and their national aspects.  This is, in fact, the way the rest of the world works.  Every other country has a strong emphasis on the local control of their schools as well as a national way to raise money and fund them well.  There is no reason we could not do this as well.

Mr Meredith, then, does know how to solve our educational problems; he has seen how to do it in his own lifetime.  The civil rights movement showed us.  As Dr. King said, it's a matter of improving conditions for "all God's children;" not just the one's in our own local school.  I know this is a difficult concept for many, but it is the only way to make all the public schools better.

Peter Dodington

April 29, 2017


Three Facts About Improving Public Education

Some thoughts about how to improve the schools, boiled down to three facts.

1) It takes money, new money, to bring about improvements to a program.

This is so obvious that people often look right past it in the debate about the schools.  Of course schools deal with complex, hard-to-define issue like "intelligence" or "learning," but that does not mean that the structure of the program that provides those things is also hard to define.  If you want to change something for the better, that means that you have to put some new resources into it, like better ideas or better people.  These things cost money.  If they work, you will get the money back and then some, but at first you have to come up with new sources of funds.

In education, this is hard to see because people often want to just "fix" the schools, not "improve" them.  They want to make them less dysfunctional, or more like they used to be, or more equal.  That's fine, but it's not the same as wanting to improve them. Fixing them might be done by just moving the parts around some, and that might not cost much, and certainly the efforts to equalize them ought to be just a matter of shifting the funds around, not providing more funds.  But if we say, from the start, that what we want is better schools, not just schools that have solved their problems, then we will need more money.

A good defense is important in any sport, but in the end, it won't help much if you don't have an offense.  Let's score some points, one's we have made ourselves, rather than just answering our critics.  To do that we need more funds.

2) Funding has to come from the general public, not just the parents.

There simply aren't enough parents of school-age children to do the job.  Only about a quarter of the tax-paying population has children in school.  If we tried to rely on just their contribution to the schools, the schools would have to be four times worse! (Or the parents would have to pay four times as much, which is about what they do if they switch to a private school.) . Schools funded only by parents, such as a new day-care center, meet in church basements.

Private schools and colleges have known this all along.  They don't rely on just the tuition of the parents, as any alumnus can attest.  They are funded primarily by the rest of the population: wealthy donors, graduates and the government.

Of course there are suburban public schools that rely primarily on parent funding, but they educate a very small percentage of the population.  If we want to improve the entire system, we have to rely on funds from the general public.

3) The general public will not fund improvements unless they can see that these provide a public benefit to them.

Parents get a clear benefit from the education of their children.  They can see how this improves their lives now, and how, in the long run, it will improve their adult lives when they grow up.  That is why they are willing to support the schools.

The rest of the population also gets a benefit from the schools, a public benefit.  By educating our children we lower the amount of crime in our society, lessen disease, create better workers, foster innovations, create better voters, and make a more unified country, to name a few.  All this has been proven over and over.  We don't have public schools because we like government-run programs; we have them because they provide benefits that we can't get any other way.

But, you will say, I don't support my schools because I get a benefit from them; I just support them because I like them.  They are like the United Way or such; something good that I want to support.

But, you see, that will never lead to improvements.  Charity does not work as a way to fund growth.  It is actually a way to keep the status quo.  As you say, "You like them," that is, you like what they are, not what they could be.  Charity in general helps people become better at what they are; not at changing to something different, and better.  If we want to improve the schools we can't treat them as a charity.

If we want to fund improvements we need to show the general public how those improvements benefit them.  No one is going to put up new money, an increase in their educational taxes, unless they can see how that investment will make their own lives better.  We know that better schools do make our own lives better; the problem is how to show this to the taxpayers.

Once we get these three facts straight, and agree that they are valid, we can see why the public schools are not improving.  Our decentralized school system, run by the districts and the states, has no way to demonstrate the public benefit from the schools to the taxpayers.  Those benefits occur outside of these local and state entities, as the graduates move away, and so cannot be tracked and tabulated. The only way to improve the schools, then, is to switch to a national school system.

Peter Dodington

April 15, 2017



Druids Dialogues V: Education as a Charity


Pedro and Limato are sitting by the window, looking out on a winter rain.

Limato: Well and good, but I was talking about these things with some friends --  yes, my middle-class homies in conservative Staten Island --  and they said our original premise was all wrong.  They don’t pay their ed. taxes to get any kind of “benefit” from the schools; they just want to support a good thing and help the families that have kids in the schools.  They don’t look for any kind of personal gain from this, any more than they would from the Red Cross or an animal shelter.  So they don’t need some evidence of this so-called benefit, and certainly not from the federal government!

Pedro watches the rain in the empty street, then, with a sigh, turns to his friend:

Let’s start with the difference between local and state taxes.  Our problem has never been with the local system, but the state system, right, and their taxes.  Of course the local taxes help the friends and neighbors, but what about the state?

Limato: They also help the local schools.  You yourself said that about half the school budget comes from the state. So state taxes also help their neighbors and friends, and their own community.

Pedro: To what degree?  How many local districts are there in New York State?  A few hundred?  So I give the state $100, and about 30 cents comes back to my own local district?  That’s why they support the state education tax?

Limato: All right; so that’s not a good reason.  Most of the money does go to distant schools.  But they would say that they still want to support this, since they believe in the value of public education.  It’s a donation to a good cause.  They believe good schools help everyone so they want to give to them, as a gift.

Pedro:  So it’s like a charity.  As you say, like the Red Cross.  They give with no expectation of benefit.

Limato: Right.

Pedro:  Okay, but, there are several problems with that.  First, those charities you mention do publish a good deal of data on how they provide public benefits to their donors.  There’s plenty of data out there on how helping disaster victims, for example, keeps the economy healthy as well as just relieving suffering.  You do benefit from this kind of donation.

Limato: All right, then, but take something like an animal shelter.  Maybe they just like saving kittens.  It makes them feel good.

Pedro:  Right; it’s your own pleasure you’re talking about.  You don’t need any benefit or return from this kind of donation because you are already getting one from your own feelings.  You like it. It’s like giving a quarter to a homeless guy on the subway.

Limato: Which I rarely do; but yeah, same idea.

Pedro: And does that help the guy?

Limato: Of course.

Pedro:  To do what?  To change his life and get back on his feet?  Not likely.  You’re helping him be a better bum.  That quarter helps him get through the day and be there again tomorrow with his cup out.  It doesn’t change him; it helps him stay the same.

Limato: So?

Pedro:  Wasn’t the whole point of this discussion from the start that we need to improve the schools?  You see, charity doesn’t do that.  It’s really a force for the status quo, not for change.

Limato: But people say all the time that they are giving to a program to make it better.

Pedro:  But not if they never see any results.  You can’t have it both ways.  Either you want to improve things and so need to see some results so you can judge whether this is happening or not, or you don’t, and so don’t need any kind of results or benefits.  The minute you say you don’t need results, you are also saying you are not interested in changes for the better, since results are the only way you could ever know about those improvements.

Limato: Hmm.

Pedro:  You can just look at who gets the benefit.  Is it you, and you are the one who now is feeling so good about those kittens, or is it the program and the people in it, not you?  If it’s the former, then you don’t need any overt benefit, since your’re already getting your own, but if it’s the latter, you need some.  It’s the evidence for what you trying to do;  it’s an integral part of the whole effort.

When we say the goal is to improve the schools we have to ask ourselves who is working on this problem.  Of course, the parents, teachers and kids, but what about the public?  Among them it’s only the ones who want results who can be said to be taking this task seriously.  The rest, the ones who see the schools as a charity, are just some lukewarm supporters of the status quo.  They're part of the problem, not the solution.

Limato: (smiling) Jeez, you get a bit twisted about this, don’t you.  (He drains his beer.)  I will let my magnanimous friends know of their error.  I’m sure that will change their minds.

Pedro:  (shaking his head with a smile) No doubt, no doubt.


Peter Dodington

July 30, 2015