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

 

25Nov/170

A Conversation about National Public Education

I was sitting in La Rana, my favorite bar in Decorah, Iowa, when I spied a friend whom I had just met a few days before at the bar.  He had moved to Decorah from the East Coast to work for a local non-profit, and had an interesting take on Mid-West and US problems in general.  He asked me what I was up to, and I said I was writing a book on public education.  His eyes lit up and he asked me to explain.

Me: When I was teaching in the public schools, I started wondering why we had a state-run, diversified, school system.  Was this really better than the national systems almost every other country had?  Could there be some kind of a link between this system and the poor performance of our schools?

He: But there are all sorts of reasons why our schools do poorly.  Half the students in the public schools are from low-income families; many of these families have serious problems that interfere with the kids' learning, not to mention that there has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in this country.  Many people simply don't want good schools, or just don't care about the education of those poor minority kids.

Me: Perhaps so, but none of that negates the fact that we might improve the schools overall by having a different structure for the system.  Perhaps some of those outcomes you mention are, in fact, linked to our state-run structure.

He: How could that be?

Me: Well, for one, our state system works against providing an incentive for the public to support the schools.  At the state level, that is, not the local level.  The local schools work fine, but local taxes provide only about half the cost of the schools.  The rest comes from state taxes.  Federal support is negligible.

At the state level, it turns out, you are stuck with paying for the cost of the schools with your own state taxes, but then have to share the benefits from the schools, such as less crime, better productivity, better public health, etc., with the rest of the country.  The graduates don't stay in your state; they move to other states.  This means that there is little incentive to produce really good schools.  The only level of schooling you will ever want is the average level of all the other states, since then you don't lose anything when your graduates move away and are replaced by graduates from other states.  The better your graduates, the more you lose when they move away, so you will never want to fund really good schools.

The states are trying to fund a collective good, which spreads over the whole country, with individual, autonomous, payments.  As many economists have pointed out, this will always lead to mediocre outcomes.   The system itself could be the main reason why the schools stay mediocre.

He: So what's the solution?

Me: A national school system, where your taxes are applied to all the kids in the country, the same ones who provide the benefits.  Then it would make sense to make the schools as good as possible, since each improvement will come back directly to the national taxpayer in the form of national benefits.  You would be sharing the benefits with everyone in the country, but also sharing the costs with them, so it would work.

He: That would never work.  The real problem is that we aren't teaching the kids correctly.  The schools are too rigid; they don't emphasize creativity enough.  They are run by a huge bureaucracy.  And you want to make that bureaucracy even bigger! How could that ever lead to better schools?

Me: A bigger bureaucracy is not necessarily a worse one.  Look at your state tax forms; are they better than the federal tax forms?  Look at the military.  There's a huge bureaucracy that runs the best army in the world.  Of course it's bureaucratic; all large public programs have a certain amount of bureaucracy.

He: Fine, but where's the evidence that a federal program would work?  You need to go back and get more data.  It seems to me that the federal programs haven't worked very well in the past.

Me: There is no data on a new idea.  There's just a logical argument that it would work. And, of course the federal programs currently don't work; they are not in charge, the states are.   I'm not proposing that the feds take over more of the current system.  I want to change the system.

He: I still don't see how the feds would do better than the states.

Me: That's not the point.  I'm not saying they would do better, but that they could do better.  That's all.  Whether they actually do this is still up to them.  The point is that the states can never, ever, do better.  They are locked in to mediocrity by the structure of the state system itself.

Your state can make their own schools as good as they want, and still end up with mediocre schools in the long run, because the public will not fund the schools at any other level. It's simply not in their interest to fund really good schools when all the other states are mediocre, and those graduates migrate into your state as adults.  So you can make good schools, but no one will fund them, so they will eventually revert back to the mediocre status quo.

There is no guarantee that a federal program will be better, but at least this is possible, which is a step in the right direction.

He: I'm not sure most people will be able to understand all this.

Me: But you do; why not others?

 

Peter Dodington

November 25, 2017

 

11Nov/170

The “Too Big for one School System” Fallacy

One of the favorite arguments in favor of having a state-run decentralized school system in this country is that we are too big to have one, centralized, national school system.  Other countries that have national programs are smaller and more homogenous, like Japan or Finland, and so can run their schools from one national capital.  We are too big and too diverse to do that effectively.  We need some kind of local divisions, like the states, to respond to all our various local needs.

There is some logic to this.  Many large organizations divide their work into divisions or units that then can accomplish the work more efficiently.  Your local supermarket divides itself up into “produce,” “meat,” “dairy,” etc., so that each unit can focus on its own “local” problems.  That works.

But that is not, in fact, what we do in our state-run decentralized school system.  We haven’t set the states up as divisions of a larger organization so that the whole will work better.  Each state is a separate entity on its own; it raises it own money from its own residents and spends this as it pleases.  It’s not a division of a larger program, the way the produce department is a division of the supermarket.  There is no larger program, since we specifically forbid there to be a national program.  Each state is its own completely separate operation as far as education is concerned.

No supermarket, or any other organization, would ever let its divisions operate totally on their own, raising their own money and spending it as they wished.  That would not improve the organization.  Each unit would just go its own way so that the result would be varied.  Some would improve, but others would get worse, and the end result would just be stagnation.  It is only by coordinating those units that the whole scheme could ever produce a better situation.  But that is precisely what we don’t do in public education. There is not way to coordinate the state programs.  Since they raise their own money they can do whatever they want with it.

So we may be “too big” to run our school system just from Washington, but that problem will not be solved by our current system of autonomous states. What would solve it would be to divide up our educational program into something like state programs, and then coordinate these through a central, national, organization.  That would work.  But that would mean that the national government would have to have some say over the state programs.

The key to that kind of a solution is to share the control of the schools between the local units and the centralized organization.  There is nothing wrong with local control; it is the right way to respond to the needs of the families in the schools, and should be put into effect as much as possible.  However, you still need centralized oversight so that the whole program can move forward.  You can’t just let each local program go its own way if you want any kind of long-term improvement.

This is not rocket science.  Every school program throughout the world, even in very decentralized programs such as Canada's, allows for restrictions on the local units set by the central government.  These central organizations set standards in various academic and operational areas, and have the ability to enforce these.  They can then change the local programs for the better.  That’s why their school systems improve.

It’s interesting, too, why we even bring up this issue.  Why are we worrying about how to educate all the children in the country, anyway?  Haven’t we decided that we only want a local, state-run, program, not a national one?  So shouldn’t we be worried about how to make Nebraska’s school system work, not the nation’s?  We go around thinking that we have solved this national “too big” problem, but that’s not even the right question.  It has nothing to do with what should be the real problem for us, namely how to run a good state program.  Why are we even bringing this up?

What this implies is that we don’t actually want just a good program for each state.  What we really want is national success, for everyone.   We bring up this "too big" problem because we think that it proves that we can get that kind of national success through our state system.  But we can't; an autonomous state program with no national oversight doesn't work.  If what we really want is national success, why don't we simply set up some kind of national program?

Peter Dodington

November 11, 2017

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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