National Public Education
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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

1Jul/170

North Carolina’s School “Choice” Plan

I see that North Carolina’s state legislature has just approved a school “choice” scheme that will refund $9,000 to the parents of children with disabilities, foster children, recently adopted, or children of military personnel.  These families can then use the funds to purchase other private ways to educate their child.

No doubt many will see this as an excellent idea.  Here is the state helping those who need help the most; those with disabilities and special needs, and those, such as foster and adopted children, who often need various kinds of special services.  How magnanimous, how caring.  But as we have discussed in last-week’s blog, these plans are anything but beneficial for either the families involved or the general public.  They are simply a way for the state to save money.

The problem is not just the lack of oversight.  Most of the criticism for these plans has focused on how parents spend the money they receive.  Interesting stories are told about people buying school books and then turning these back in to the stores for credit on a new TV.  People wonder why the state isn’t watching over these purchases more carefully.

But how could we expect anything different?  The main difference between a public and a private system is surely one of “oversight.” We set up this public program in the first place because we wanted a way to monitor how people educated their children.  The whole point was that, left to their own devices, private families often tend to consult their own needs, not the needs of society in general.  So we have created a public program that would “oversee” how this was done, and so benefit the entire society.

Now, though, we want to do away with that public program, and go back to a private way of education.  But that also has to do away with the oversight.  You can’t have both “free choice” and “oversight;” there is no such thing as a private program regulated by the state.  If we want oversight we need to keep the public program.

The more serious problem is that this program will not actually help the families who use it.  To see this, you just have to do the math.

What is the cost of the education and treatment of a disabled child?  I don’t mean how much a family usually spends, but the actual cost.  Let’s just start with the educational cost.  What is the cost of tuition, for example, at a private school that specializes in students with disabilities?  A bit more than $9,000, or even the $20,000 mentioned in other programs, wouldn't you say?  Isn't this a good indication of the actual cost of such a program?

And then what about the medical costs that public schools provide, through their own services?  Who will pay for these once the child is no longer enrolled in the public school system?  Just how much is that public school nurse worth, somebody who is fully licensed, experienced, and knows the child? Are the parents of these children who "opt out" really going to be able to afford anything like a similar level of care for their children?

In reality, most parents know that they benefit from public schools programs.  Everyone likes to complain about government bureaucracy, except the parents of children who actually need those services.  They may be quite willing to sit in some dingy office all day so they can walk out with payments worth a small fortune.  No one says they want to be “told” what to do for their child, except when this means that an expensive treatment will be paid for.  Then it all seems to make sense.

When the Kappan magazine does their annual poll of attitudes on the schools, they always find that almost everyone thinks their local school is doing well (but that schools in general are not).  That includes, then, the parents at urban schools, and the like, that supposedly are such “failures.”  These people are in those polls, too, and so must also be mostly in favor of their schools.  That makes sense to me.  These parents can see that the schools are trying to help them, in contrast to almost everyone else, regardless of what kind of “data” is reported about their outcomes.  They are not going to be easily lured away from the public schools.

But, you might say, it’s a fair trade; they are getting the cost of that child’s education and so ought to be able to provide a similar education themselves.  But it is nowhere near the true cost.  It’s the parents’ share of what the entire population paid for the schooling of all the children, which is considerably less than the cost for that particular child.  There are many more taxpayers than children.  The schools give back only the per-taxpayer cost, not the per-child cost.  The individual cost of educating and treating that child, especially a disabled child, is a lot more than $9,000.

(This is why private schools seem to cost so much.  That's the true cost of educating a child.  It costs the state that much, too, but they are able to spread it over many taxpayers, so the cost per taxpayer is considerably less.  They only publicize the tax-payer cost, though, not the actual cost per child.)

This cost difference, of course, is why the state legislature wants the "choice" program.  It saves them money.  And, this is why the focus is on those children with disabilities and other conditions, such as adoption and foster care, which tend to involve children with more than the average number of problems, all of which cost something to fix.  Taking these children off the rolls saves the most.

Am I being too cynical?  Perhaps.  State legislatures do have their own problems, and, no doubt, some good reasons for trying to save a buck now and then.  It’s just that parents need to remember that most such schemes do not work in their favor.

 

Peter Dodington

July 1, 2017

 

 

 

 

24Jun/170

Hey, Parents, It’s My Money, Too

 

There is a fundamental problem with what are called “Educational Savings Accounts,” the plan to give parents back the money they have spent on their child’s public school education (in taxes) so they can spend this on other “choices”, such as a private school.  Aside from the fact that such a scheme weakens the public schools by taking money away from them, the plan just doesn’t make sense.  The math doesn’t work.

If the schools were private, it would make sense to pay back the parents of a child who “opts out.”  They paid that money into the school, and now should get it back if they take the child out.  But the schools are not private, they are public.  The cost of that child’s education was borne by the entire community, not just the parents.  If you are going to give back the money spent on that child, shouldn’t you also give some back to the general taxpayer, who also shared in that cost?  The money came into the program from all the taxpayers, not just the parents, so why is it going back only to the parents?

I realize that this way of looking at it seems odd to us, but that is only because we are so used to thinking of the public schools as if they were private.  We assume that the true “clients” of the system are the parents of the children in the schools, so their concerns should guide policy.  In reality, though, the system is paid for primarily by the non-parent general public (who outnumber parents by about four to one).  They are the true “clients” of the system, since it is their taxes which actually pay for the schools.

So it doesn't make sense to give back the cost of the child's education to only the parents. This says nothing about the value of parents or the need to support them as much as possible.  It's just simple logic.  As my father used to say, "put the numbers into the equation."  We need to remember that we have a public school system, not a private one.

Why do non-parent taxpayers, after all, pay for most of the support for the schools?  Isn’t it so that the children involved will grow up and become good citizens and benefit us all?  Don’t they lose something, then, when these children “opt out”?  Each time a child leaves the school system that goal becomes that much harder to realize.  The general, non-parent public do not benefit from these opt-out schemes.

Who does benefit is the state school system.  They save money every time a child leaves.  They do give back an amount equal to the average cost each taxpayer pays for that child’s education, but this is considerably less than the amount they save by not educating that child.  It is not hard to see how this works.

There are more taxpayers than students, so the per-taxpayer cost for the entire program is considerably less than the per-student cost.  The state doesn’t give back to the parents the full cost of the child’s education (as they would if the schools were private), but only the parents’ portion of that cost, which has been shared with all the rest of the population.  They give back the per-taxpayer cost, not the per-child cost.  This is logical, since you don’t want the parents getting back more than they paid in, but it also means that the state is coming out ahead each time they let a student leave.

Where, then, does that money come from that the state is “making” on each opt-out?  From the general taxpayer’s pocket.  They’re the ones who are still paying the same tax each year but are now getting fewer and fewer educated students.  The money that they paid into the school system in order to educate a certain number of students is now being used to educate a lower number.  The difference is then just expropriated by the state.  This is why the state legislatures agree to such schemes; they benefit from them. Who doesn't benefit, though, are the rest of us, the general taxpayers.

I am a parent; I have nothing against this group of people.  I would just like to see some logic to how we run our school system.  It is not funded just by parents; it is funded by the general population.  If we don’t pay attention to that fact we will not have any public school system for long.

Peter Dodington

June 24, 2017

 

 

3Jun/170

On-line Learning Problems

One of the selling points for the new schemes to privatize the public schools is that the new “choices” available to one and all will include the ability to learn things on-line, without having to bother with expensive teachers, classrooms and textbooks.  One often hears from the advocates for “opting out” of the public school system, and using “our” tax dollars for private education schemes, that this will enable us to access all the riches of on-line education and other “disruptive” ways to learn.  Examples are given of on-line courses with enrollments in the hundreds of thousands.

The problem is that using your computer to get educated doesn't work very well.  It may help you figure out a whole lot of interesting topics, but it is not a very good tool for actually making you better at something, which seems to me to be what education is all about.

I have seen this in my work in Latin.  Latin, it turns out, has always been a kind of on-line course.  The entire curriculum has been unchanged for millennia, and has always been available to all, whether in libraries or on computers.  There is nothing in the course that is not fully explained in some tome or program somewhere.

So, of course, people do try to learn it on their own.  I remember sitting in my Latin teacher’s office at U. of Montana in the 1970’s, listening to a student say that he had to drop the course, but would keep at it on his own, and check back in with the professor now and then.  Dr. Hay, the teacher, always agreed to help them with this.  After the student left I asked him why he agreed to this, since it would obviously mean more work for him.  He replied, “They never come back.”  Not once, in all his long career.  It just doesn’t work.

The problem is that there are simply too many ways to make errors in Latin, or in just about any reasonably complex subject.  A simple sentence might have five words, each with several definitions, and maybe ten different grammar points to figure out, and then several matters of syntax.  It is very hard to see, on your own, whether you are on the right track as you work through all these possible combinations.  Of course you could theoretically just keep trying each different one, but most students give up after about ten or so attempts, far below the total number of possibilities.

I have students tell me all the time that they understand the vocabulary and the grammar of the sentence perfectly and it still doesn’t make sense.  A simple matter of a definition taken in the wrong sense can totally mess up the meaning.  Then, once you are unsure of the meaning of one sentence, it is quite hard to figure out the meaning of the next.  You really don’t know, then, whether you are making any progress at all.

This whole problem is aggravated, it seems, by the use of modern computers.  At least with a dictionary and a grammar book that you can hold in your hands you can come at these problems with a method of approximation.  You can have some idea of what the problem is, and then go to that part of the book and just hunt around until you hit on the answer.  Maybe you chose the wrong word, or the wrong grammar rule.  Other related words and rules are clustered around in the same area of the book, so you might well find the right one.

With a computer program, though, everything has to be entered exactly right, and when that doesn’t work, there is no other option than to just try another word or topic that seems to you, in your ignorance, to be similar.  You don’t get to see the cluster of similar words or topics.  You have to come up with them yourself.  This often means, in my experience, that you don’t ever find the right answer.

The entire idea that teaching is all about presenting information is the wrong way to look at it.  The point is not what the teacher does; it’s what the student does.  What happens in his or her mind is the goal.  Of course it is interesting to make good presentations to students, but this is nothing compared to actually changing them for the better.

When I used to teach both mythology and Latin in college, at the end of the mythology classes, after all my lovely slides and analogies to poetry and art, students would come up and thank me for such a good class.  After Latin class, though, no one ever said that.  All they ever said was, “I think I’m starting to get this.”  The class wasn’t about me; it was about them.

But what is so odd about this, and, of course, the source of the confusion about the value of on-line learning, is that they need the “me” in that room to get a class about “them.”  It would seem that a class all about the students ought to be one that only has students in it, but for some reason this doesn’t work.  We evidently need someone else to help us become who we are and who we can be.  That is really the core problem with on-line learning.

Peter Dodington

June 3, 2017