National Public Education

Betsy DeVos’ Private Game off in Right Field

When I was in middle school, every day after school a group of us would get on our bikes and head for a vacant lot where we would organize a baseball game.  Each day we would pick sides, divide up the equipment, and figure out who was playing where.  This was so much fun that we did it for several years.

What would have happened if someone had then organized their own, private game off in right field, using some of our players and equipment, saying that they knew better how to play?  Would we have allowed that?  It wouldn’t have mattered that they might claim to be better players than we were, getting more hits or whatever, or that they included more of the poor kids or the less-skilled players.  The whole concept was wrong.  They had agreed to play the game together with all of us; setting up their own, private, game was a violation of that agreement.  We wouldn’t have allowed it, and we certainly wouldn’t have  let them expand these private games on to other parts of the playing field.

This is what Betsy DeVos is trying to do with public education.  She wants to take a group activity, something organized by the entire population, that is, public education, and break off a small part of it to play her own game with her own private equipment and people.  She claims that this works better, and is even more democratic, since she makes sure she includes people from a wide range of backgrounds.  But that is not the point.  She is breaking the agreement that we had from the start, that we all would work collectively for the success of that original program, the public schools.

Well, she would say, she is doing this because those public schools are not doing well; they need a new approach.  The original game was not producing the results we wanted.
But is her private game a way to fix this?  Back on that playground, would that private game in right field ever be seen as a way to improve the original game?  How could it do that?  It has turned away from that game and gone off on its own.  It may do well, but it is clearly not going to help the original game do well.  If we want to fix that original, collective activity, we have to work on that, not some separate edition of a private game.

Okay, she might admit, my game is probably not helping fix the big collective game, but that’s okay, because no one wants that game, anyway.  People want these small, private programs that seem to work so much better.  They produce results, and that’s what people want.

But if that is so, why didn’t we start out with these private programs from the start, since they work so well?  There are plenty of other countries in the world where the only good schools are private; why didn’t America take that path?  Isn’t it because we set this country up on the basis of equality and justice for all, not just for some?  We opted, then, for a large, collective educational program because we wanted to educate everyone to roughly the same level; that’s not possible with small private schools.  They will always produce a wide variety of outcomes, not equality.

The public schools were set up to solve a problem that could not be solved through private means: the education of the entire population up to a common level.  There is no way private schools can do this, regardless of how well they do, or whether they have access to private or public funds.  They solve some problems, but they don’t solve that one.  They are a rejection of the idea that everyone can be educated equally.

I would be the first to admit that the public schools have problems.  So let’s work on these, and not waste our time trying to create a parallel private system that we have never wanted, and never will want.  Let’s run that private game off the playing field, or, better still, talk them into rejoining the main group effort.

Peter Dodington

February 25, 2017


ollective, group efforts, like the public schools or that afternoon ballgame, are worth


Charter Schools as Models of Innovation

Recently I read two expressions of support for charter schools written by African Americans, one by Rev. Percy Hunter of Memphis, and the other by Cheryl Brown Henderson, the CEO of the Brown Foundation in Atlanta.  Both writers are associated with charter school organizations.  They argue for an expansion of the charter school movement, telling how a Stanford study shows that students gain the equivalent of some 40 or 50 extra days of learning at these schools.  Of course they are also critical of the NAACP's call for a moratorium on charter school expansion.

I can see why they feel this way.  As I have said elsewhere, of course the people in the charter schools love them, since they get an essentially private school experience at a public school cost.  And, I was impressed with some of Ms Henderson's comments.  At the end of her piece, she berates the NAACP for wanting to "close off an important path to learning," regardless of whether this is the only path we take or not.  She feels we should be "taking the lessons of successful schools of all models and applying them to under-performing schools."

I quite agree that this would be a good idea.  As the Obama administration often argued, charter schools should be used as models for how to improve the entire school system. They are like a kind of research and development cell in a large corporation, experimenting with new ideas and trying them out before putting them into regular practice.  They ought to be engines of innovation, or some such concept.

The problem is, though, that implementing this is not the task of the charter schools; it's the task of the regular school system.  It's not the charter school's job to see that their innovations are then used by the "under-performing schools," it's the task of the regular school boards and the state department of education.  In a way, the charter schools themselves are the last people who should be doing this; they are to come up with the ideas, not apply them.  The whole point is to keep them separate from the regular work so that they can come up with some totally new ideas.  You don't want them getting involved in fixing the regular schools.

So this means that making more charter schools is not going to solve the problem of how to get their work into the traditional schools.  More schools would actually have no effect on that part of the problem at all.  What we need to do is get the regular bureaucracy to do this better.  In a way, what the NAACP should have recommended is not a moratorium on charters, but an increase in regular state and local efforts to use the charters to improve the regular schools.

But, of course, they didn't.  Why not?  Because nothing would have happened.  Calling for the schools to fix their own problems is a non-starter.  They have been trying this for 50 years and nothing has changed.

The reason for this is clear when you think of the parallel situation in a business setting. If the Boeing Corporation set up a small autonomous unit to come up with innovations, they then would carefully use those innovations in the rest of the company.  The corporate administration is in charge of both the innovative group and the rest of the company, so they make sure that the two are helpful to each other.

But as many have noted, neither the states nor the local districts are "in charge" of public education.  They all see themselves as just bit players in a much larger operation, the national level of education.  They don't think of themselves as in control of the success of failure of that national operation.  So, they don't want to control the situation.  They let the charters go off and do whatever they want, and still pay them.

It's as if someone got into the Boeing company and killed off, or infected the minds of, all the corporate administrators so that they no longer cared about the overall success of the company. Then they would let the innovative units do whatever they wanted, and some people, no doubt, would look to these units as the ultimate answer to the company's problems, since the regular administration was so out of it.  And, of course, the only people reasonably happy in such a situation would be the people who were part of the innovative units, since they, being somewhat separate from the overall administration, would be less affected by its incompetence.

Notice that although everyone says that we don't want a national school organization, that is exactly what the charter school movement is.  All the charter organizations are national.  Of course they are, since that is where the problem we want solved resides. We have a national public school problem and will only solve this by turning to a national school organization.  The state system doesn't work.

Peter Dodington

January 14, 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



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



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