National Public Education
9Dec/170

Elizabeth Green and Charter Schools

Elizabeth Green, the creator of "Chalkbeat" and the author of several excellent works on the public schools, has written an article for the Atlantic about Eva Moskowitz and her charter school network.  In that article she says that she worries about where these charter organizations are headed, with their wealthy donors on their boards, but feels that they are the "most promising model we have for public education."

But I don't want to discuss either Ms Moskowitz or the charter school movement. Instead I want to ask why Ms Green rejects the other options for our schools, such as the traditional government run schools.   I want to look at what Ms Green says about public education in general, and see if we an figure out what she thinks is going wrong there, and whether there is any solution to those "public" problems.  If not, then we might turn to a discussion of things like charter schools.

Ms Green says that when she started to write a book in 2010 about the public schools, she realized "how impossible teaching is, especially in traditional public schools."  She points out that other countries are able to supply good materials, goals, and training to their teachers, but our governments do not.  Part of the problem, she says, in the confusing mix of local, state, and national authority in public education.  She wants a system that is "equitable, accountable, and parent-friendly," but does not see how our governments can supply this.  She goes so far as to worry that "democracy as we know it is a problem."

All this is true.  But why, then, not try to fix the democracy?  Before we turn away from it, and give up on a workable public system, why not try to change that government system so that it does work? That would not be impossible; we still are able to vote on changes in the way we govern our public programs, aren't we?

Ms Green, herself, hints at how we might approach this problem.  At the end of the article, she turns her attention to the boards that run the charter school systems and finance the charter-specific aspects of them. She worries, quite rightly, that the people who control that money might use these funds for their own ends.  She sees, rightly, that those who control the money in these programs control the essence of these charter schools.

Let's apply that kind of thinking, then, to the public school system.  Where does the money for that system come from?  Obviously, the taxpayers.  And not just the parent taxpayers, who only make up a quarter of the population, but the general taxpayers who don't have children in the schools.  They, as in "we", are the source of the money that makes public education happen; we, ourselves, are the "board" for the school system. That's why it's called a "public" system; it is funded by that "public."  When I was a teacher in the New York City schools, almost everyone I met on the street was paying part of my salary. The money, and, actually, the control, of public education comes from the taxpayers.

But you can see right away that there are problems.  Why were those people on the streets of New York paying me?  I wasn't teaching their children.  So was I providing them some kind of public benefit, like less crime and a better economy?  But where is the evidence that this is happening?  Almost all of that money goes to the state and local governments, but do these governments ever tell us anything about those public benefits?  All they tell us is what happens in the schools, not the effect of this on us, the people paying for those schools.

Well, you might say, that is too complicated.  Who can fathom the workings of state and local government?  It's so "political."  But if you can work your way through why a hedge-fund owner might want to support charter schools, I think you can also start to figure out our decentralized state and local public school system.  There are some obvious truths that are apparent to anyone who looks in that direction.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher training, which Ms Green has particularly focused on, quite rightly.  Who is in charge of this in the public schools?  Not the local districts, and not the federal government, which provides less than 10% of the funding for the school system.  It must be the states.  But why should the states want to do this well?  Do the graduates of their programs stay in their states?  Not at all.  So why should they focus on spending their good state tax money on this?  They don't get any direct benefit from it.  They have to share the results of their program with all the other states, so why should they ever try to make their program better than the average level that the other states provide?  So that's why we have average, mediocre, teacher-training programs. There is no way around this as long as we allow the states to run these programs.

In Ms Green's article, the words "state government" do not appear.  That is a problem. She has such a good understanding of the schools; she just needs to take it to the next level.  Where is the public money coming from, and what is wrong with the way we are doing that?  There are public solutions to our public school problems, but we won't ever find these unless we examine the fundamental structure of the system we are currently using.  Before we even start to think about alternatives, like charter schools, let's look critically at the public system we have, and see if we can make it better.

Peter Dodington

December 9, 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5Aug/170

The NAACP and Charter Schools

Some time ago the NAACP called for, with good reason, a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools so that, as they said, we might examine these programs more closely in three areas: 1. the governance of these schools, 2. their relationship to the public schools, and 3. their effect on the public schools.  Let's look more closely at each area.

1. The governance of charter schools.  Who, exactly, is in charge of these schools?  The answer out there on the street is "no one," it's just the parents who send their kids there. "That's the whole point; they are run by the people who use them."  But is that possible? Do the parents hire the staff, fire the staff, choose the books?  Aren't there administrators and bureaucrats who actually organize these things?  Who are these people, and who are their bosses?

And is there any way to affect them?  The traditional schools may be bureaucratic, but there is a way to vote the leaders out of office.  There is nothing like an elected school board in charge of a charter school.  So what happens if there are problems?  It would seem that by doing away with public school bureaucracy the charters have also done away with the democratic process, replacing a cumbersome but transparent administrative structure with a sleek but secretive one.

Given that there is no obvious way to change the policies of a charter school through any kind of democratic process, wouldn't it be wise to get a clear picture of the rationale behind those policies?   Who benefits from these schools?  Are they just a gift to the parents?  That doesn't seem likely.  Aren't there some people in charge who are also benefitting?  Who are these people, and how are they benefitting from these programs? It's our public money; where is it going?

2. The relationship to the public schools.  These schools are still funded by the public school system, even though they are administratively separate from them.  Doesn't that funding imply a relationship?  Can a charter school, then, change its funding?  Will it be able to fund new programs with new funds if that seems best?  And will it ever be able to increase the funding for programs that are doing well?  If not, what will be the incentive to do well?  If yes, how does that match up with the separation from the public schools?

How, then, does the public school system decide on that funding?  Is it according to the overall per pupil cost, or just the per pupil cost for each taxpayer?  There are many more taxpayers than pupils, so the latter will always be much less.  It may actually cost about $20,000 to educate a child these days, but each taxpayer might only pay about $10,000, since they get to divide that cost up between all the taxpayers.  If the state only funds the charter school according to the second amount, won't they be profiting on each child that attends a charter school?  Is that why they are so much in favor of such programs? The state no longer has to pay out that $20K for the child, but then only gives $10K to the charter school and pockets the rest.

But how are the charter schools supposed to educate a child on $10K?  Can they build a new science lab?  Create a football program?  Sponsor trips to Europe?  Won't they always be relying on the public school structure for such things?  But what will happen when the charters start replacing the public school structure, as they seem intent on doing?  Who then will build the science labs?

3. The effect on the public schools.  People argue that charter schools are better than the public schools they replace.  They are a good deal for the parents.  They are almost like a private school education but at a public school price. What a deal!

What the NAACP has realized, though, is that even if there is nothing wrong with this logic, it is starting from the wrong place.  It's looking at the issue of charter schools merely from the perspective of a consumer of this education, not that of the creators of a sound public educational policy.  There may be no conclusive argument against the idea that charters are good schools; the question is, though, are they good school policy?  Are they a way to improve the education of the entire population?  This is the "effect on the public schools" that one has to analyze.

The public schools do educate the entire population (or 90% of it).  If we are really going to replace them with these charter schools, we have to ask whether this new program will also educate everyone.  Is it the right way to replace a program that educates us all? I don't see how we could say this.  Charters are built on the idea of turning away from a general, collective, public approach to education.  They don't help the traditional public schools. How could they?  They are founded on the idea of separation from the public school structure; they are a rejection of the public schools, not an aid to them.  Where is a public school that has benefitted from a nearby charter school?  They don't exist.

So my hat is off to the NAACP.  They have seen that this is a public policy issue, not simply a matter of whether some parents will get a good deal on their child's education. We live in a democracy.  We get to create the public policies that run our public programs like public education, health, and the military.  This is the task we have to focus on.

Peter Dodington

August 5, 2017

6May/170

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