National Public Education
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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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