National Public Education

Druids Dialogues IV: Public Education and the Media


The week was finally over.  Limato and Pedro sat with their Guinness as they recounted how last night someone set fire to the list of Regents scores posted outside the English office.

Pedro:  That’s one way to express your opinion of the test.

Limato: I guess he didn’t do all that well.

Pedro:  I’ll probably see him, or her, in next term’s remedial class.  I should check who likes to write about burning stuff.

Limato: Or just ask somebody.  They all know.

Bob and Tom join them.  Bob has something on his mind.

Bob:     Okay, I get all these logical arguments about the value of public programs, and the problems of private ones, but what I don’t get is how come I’m the only one?  If this is all so clear and simple, as it seems to me, why is it such a secret?  Why does absolutely everybody say the exact opposite; that only the moms and kids matter, not the general public?  There must be something wrong either with the way we’ve figured this out, or the way the world works.

Limato: That’s a no-brainer.  Since when was the world on the right path?

Tom:    But Bob’s right, there must be some reason why we never hear about this kind of argument.  All we ever get from the media is the most light-weight, even childish, points of view about public education problems.  Every silly complaint, every emotional or selfish thought is recorded and taken at face value.  The man on the street is put alongside the professor, the politician, and the teacher, all equally, until the only possible answer is that there is no answer.

Pedro:  True.  For all their talk about the value of “the public” and the need to “let the people decide,” you never hear the media actually favoring some collective action by that public.  They favor “the people” but only in the abstract; not when it comes to doing something that would benefit them.

Limato: Of course not; it’s not entertaining.  A public message?  Boring.  This is going to get people to listen?  Moms and kids are more interesting; like cat videos.

Pedro:  That’s true, but it can’t be the whole story.  I mean, the media actually does take a stand in favor of things like the right to choose your own school, or decide your school’s curriculum.  It’s not just entertainment they want.  They have a point of view, and it is not in favor of public, collective, action.

The group sits there, looking at their beers.

Bob:     (With a shrug) It’s not in their interest.  They don’t make any money backing collective action.

Limato: And I suppose they do backing the moms?

Bob:     Indirectly.  They make their money from ads, right?  Well, moms, and all individuals, buy things.  A collective group doesn’t.  A public group gets what it wants through collective, governmental, actions.  There’s no buying and selling of anything.  But ads won’t work unless there is buying and selling.  So it’s the private, market-based side of the ledger that the media is always going to favor, since that’s the side where their money is.  Radio stations and newspapers are private businesses, not public agencies.

Tom:    The government doesn’t advertise.

Pedro:  What people want for their children’s education is a very powerful force.  If we start solving that problem  through a public, governmental, solution, with no market involvement, the people who rely on that market, like those who sell advertising, will lose a huge amount of money.  So they want solutions based on individual, private, choices, not group action.

Limato: The point is to keep us wanting those private goods, whether we can afford them or not, since that is what drives the market economy, and the ads that go with it.  So that is what gets emphasized, logic be damned.

Bob:     And since when does a salesman worry about what you can or cannot afford?  It’s best to keep that a bit vague.  You want the big BMW, oh, that’s a good idea.  So we can’t expect the media to stress the fact that you can’t really afford that private-like education you keep harping about.  It’s better for the salesman that you don’t realize how much it really costs.

Pedro:  But we can’t be too hard on the media.  They have to make a buck somehow.  The real problem is that we have come to rely on them for virtually all our information on public education.  We turn to the New York Times and The Atlantic for the final word on the topic. We don’t have our own system of something like “information management,”  like the police do, or the hospitals.  You don’t see them letting the media say what is going on in their own operations.  They have a healthy respect for the power of the media to affect the success of what they do, so they keep it at arm’s length.

Tom:    They know that the media, and “public opinion,” can easily interfere with their success; like when there’s a rush to judgment concerning a crime or health problem.

Pedro:  That’s the attitude that’s missing in public education.  We don’t see how our own work, like equalizing success across the economic levels of our students, can be weakened by interference from uninformed public opinion, fostered by the media.  When was the last time a school administrator held a press conference to give his point of view on one of these issues, such as integration or testing?  Instead we just let the media interview us, alongside the uninformed views of the man-in-the-street.

Tom:    So the real question is not so much why the media gets it wrong, but why we don’t get it right.   It’s not really a media problem; it’s our problem.

Limato: How come each answer leads to another question?

Shrugs all around.


Peter Dodington

July 24, 2015



The Druids Dialogues III — Show Me the Money

Friday at 4:00.  There had been few problems at Park West today; just a small toilet-paper fire in the boys’ bathroom and a shoving match in the hallway third period, calmed down, as usual, by Bob.  Pedro and Tom showed up, but just helped keep the other students in their seats.

Druids is its usual tranquil haven, empty of all but the local teachers at this early hour.

Limato: So, Doctor, what are we going to prove today?  That the earth is flat?

Pedro:   Isn't it?  But first, we didn’t even get to the best demonstration of why we have to have a public school program, the economic one.  We can’t afford anything else.  All this BS about how much we all want local control and an essentially private-like school program.  No one can afford it.

Limato: What do you mean?

Pedro:    Well, what does a good education cost?  Look at the private schools.  Why would they inflate their costs in such a competitive business?  So that $30,000 or so must be about the actual cost.  Or look at the suburbs.  The local taxes, each year, on the house I grew up in are now about $90,000.  At least half of that must go to the schools; so their cost is about equal to the stronger private schools, which sounds about right.

Limato: So how come the states always say they only spend about $10,000-$15,000 per kid for their schools?

Pedro:   You tell me.  Obviously it’s in their interest to low-ball the costs  to their taxpayers. And that number is just an average.  Maybe they spend thirty-something-thousand on some kids, and a few hundred on Lakeesha and Jason at certain (he glances across the street) schools, since they hardly ever show up.

Tom:    So to get an actual, successful, education, you probably have to spend at least $20K a year.

Pedro:   At least.  And who has that kind of money;  5% of the population?  So why are we even talking about how we need to make a more “private-like” school system?  No one can afford it.  They would all have to get some kind of subsidy, and then we’re back to a publicly-run system.

Bob:      But they can get a subsidy from all those rich donors.  Gates and the like will put in millions, and then the private system will work.

Pedro:   Yea, but for how long?  And for how many?  What is the budget for the entire school system?  Hundreds of billions.  No donor has that kind of money, not even Gates.  Those guys might put in a hundred million or so, at most, but that’s less than a thousandth of the total.

Bob:       But they don’t have to give it all.  Once they set up these schools that actually work, like the charter schools, the public will take over the funding, since the schools so obviously are doing well.  The public will support successful schools.

Pedro:    Right, like we support the good private schools right now.  I was just over at Regis the other day, on the East Side.  What a terrific school.  Excellent staff; great kids.  They’re so good they don’t even bother to tell anyone.  So I send them a hundred bucks each year?  Not likely.  Maybe in some way I benefit from all their excellence, but to such a small degree compared to their own community.  Almost all of the $100 would go to those people, not back to me in some way.  So it’s not a very reasonable way to spend my money.  If I want to support a school it has to be my own school in some sense; something I am connected to.

Limato: (frustrated) Right, like those public charter schools.  They’re our charter schools.

Pedro:    Yes, that’s what they want you to believe.  But it’s not “my” public school once they make it a charter that purposely cuts its ties to the public system.  It’s a kind of private school, as they keep telling us, with its own small private group of parents, kids and local backers who run the whole show.  When they cut their ties to the public school bureaucracy, they also cut their ties to me, the general public.

Tom:      Those private-like charters work, but only for a smaller group than the original old-fashioned public school.  That’s the bargain they agree to.  The whole point was to shrink the size of the problem for the school by only dealing with the local parents, teachers, and backers.  So, yes, that cuts out the problems of the general public and their big bureaucracy, but it also cuts out the funding from that general public.  It’s no longer “their” school.

Limato: So the public’s not going to help them, and the donors can’t, and the parents can’t afford it on their own, so these private-like schemes can’t ever work.  Huh.

Bob:       So what does work?

Tom:      The traditional public system, where the costs are shared with the general, non-parent public, who have the money, and are willing to spend it on the public schools since they get a public benefit back from them.

Limato: But we have to show them how they get that benefit, which can only be done through a bureaucratic, top-down, centralized public program that can manage such a complex task. Ergo, we need the public school system in its current form, but with the addition of some way to demonstrate that public benefit to the public.

Pedro:    Quite so.


Peter Dodington

July 17, 2015


The Druids Dialogues II: The Top-Down Problem

A Friday at 4 pm.  The Druids bar is empty except for us four tired English teachers.

Limato: Pedro, you are so full of it.  We don’t need a better system of government control of the schools; we need to get the government out of the schools.  They can’t ever do it right.  It’s impossible.  We just need to give more responsibility to the teachers and the parents, and leave it at that.  Then things might get better.

Bob:     (nodding)  We’re addicted to these “top-down” simplistic solutions.  The bigger the better.  But none of them work.  “It’s the kids” (rueful smiles all around, since we hear this all day long.)  Well, it is!  They are the key; they are the goal.  We need to focus on them, and their families, not these government issues.

Tom:    It’s well established that local control works better than distant control.  Just look at the private schools.  People pay good money just to have a smaller, more responsive, more personal, organizational structure that can meet each individual’s needs.  You ever wonder why there are no private schools with 3,000 kids, like our behemoth?  They could never sell it to the parents.  We all want schools where you can see with your own eyes what the problems are, and that means local control.

Bob:     And what about the bureaucracy?  Everyone knows that this is the central problem of the school system.  How many times have we seen good programs fail due to the bungling of the bureaucrats?  Or totally ludicrous programs and “mandates” forced upon us?  Don’t get me started.  There has to be a way to reduce that, or we’ll never get anywhere.

Limato: Hear, hear. (raising his glass)

Pedro:  (also raising his glass, quietly) Quite so; everyone wants a private, or private-like, school.  What could be better?  Local control; total control of what happens to your own kid. Well and good.  But that is not the question here.  We don’t have a system of private schools; we have a public school system.  The question is not how to run any school, but how to run a public school.

So it’s not as simple as just doing away with the bureaucrats, as much as we may want to.  There is a difference between a public program and a private one.  A public school is run by the  collective efforts of the entire community.  For that collective effort to work, there has to be some kind of organizing principle in the center that brings it all together.  You have to have someone, or something, that speaks for the group, or you don’t have an effective group.

That someone in the center has to be, it seems to me, a “top-down” entity in some sense.  It’s not dealing with the individual specific needs of each member of the group, but the overall, the collective, the “top”, aspects of them all.

And, yes, doing that collective organizing effort involves some sort of bureaucracy. There’s no way around this.  Finding out what thousands of people want and putting this into action is complicated.  It takes time, and patience, and bureaucracy.

So that bureaucracy is part of the solution, not just the problem.  It’s all well and good to say we want local, not distant, solutions, but a public program, by definition, is based on distant sources, people who are not right there in the school but are out in the community.  They need a connection to the school, and that’s what the bureaucracy does.  Take it away and you won’t have a public program any more.

Tom:    So the key is to fix the bureaucracy, not just do away with it.

Pedro:  If we want a public program.

Limato: But that’s just it.  Do we want one?  Why not just have a collection of private schools.

Bob:     Like your friends, the Jesuits.

Limato: Hey, they didn’t do such a bad job.

Tom:    There’s the small problem of the First Amendment.

Bob:     And talk about a bureaucracy.  The Church invented the concept.

Tom:    And what about equity?  Which one of our students would be going to a school paid for by his own parents?  The only way these kids are going to get an education is through a public system, one where we all share in the costs.  No one wants a private school system.

Pedro:  And there are good, logical reasons why we have public schools.  They’re not just watered-down private schools: public programs solve problems that are beyond the scope of private, market-driven, solutions.  Let me give you an example.  Are there public restaurants, supported by taxes and run by the government?

Limato: Good God, no.

Pedro:  Why not?  Because there is no public benefit when I get a good meal at a restaurant.  I buy it, and only I benefit.  It’s a straight market-based transaction.

But there are many other things I buy that do benefit the public, such as police protection.  When they solve my robbery they are also helping everyone else, since they are taking a criminal off the streets.  There is a public benefit from police work, as there is from putting out fires, or building a new road, or curing someone’s TB.  We all benefit from this kind of work, so we all help pay for it.  In these areas it makes sense to have public, not private, programs.

Tom:    Yeah, I see.  And education is in that public benefit category.  It doesn’t just benefit the kid and his parents, but the entire community.  It produces a public good, as you say, so ought to be paid for in part by the general public.  Through a public program.

Pedro:  A school is not like the cleaners, where you just pay your money and get your clothes.  It’s a cooperative effort, sort of like a bake sale at church, where the actual sale transaction is only part of the benefit that is being produced.  The rest is perhaps more vague and undefined, but many would say is the more important part.  We have public schools not simply because they educate the kids, but because they benefit everyone; not just the parents, but the entire community.

Limato: Okay.  And once we agree that we want this public good, we then have to have it run by the government, and have some bureaucracy, and have a “top-down” flavor to it.  Otherwise it will never work as a public program.  So logic requires that rather than complain about these attributes of a public school system, we try to do something about making them work better. You see, the Jesuits did teach me a few things.

Pedro:  Quod erat demonstrandum.

Limato: Yeah, right.


Peter Dodington

July 10, 2015



The Druids Dialogues 1: Too Big, Too Diverse


When I taught at Park West High School in Manhattan, in the early 2000's, a group of us teachers used to walk across Tenth Avenue after work to “Druids”, a local bar, where we would drink Guinness and complain about the school system.  We didn’t talk much about national public education, but if we had it might have sounded something like this.

Pedro: There’s one thing still bothering me.  Why is it, exactly, that we have a decentralized, state-run school system in this country?

Bob:     (A bored sigh)  You know the answer; this country is too big, and too diverse, to be run by a centralized bureaucracy.  No country our size has a really good education program.  And don’t tell me about Canada.  They have only a tenth of our population.  We have to divide up the problem to make it work.

Limato: Sort of like a big corporation dividing the work up into divisions. Then each division is closer to the problems and can solve them better than a central office.

Pedro:  So the problem was the size and diversity of the country, and the solution was state control?

Limato: You got it.

Pedro:  Doesn’t anyone see the problem with that solution?  It’s the solution to a different problem, not the one we started with.

Limato: What.  Make some sense.

Pedro:  When we say “We had to divide up the problem to make it work,” who is the “we” in that sentence?  It’s “we” in a national sense, right?  It’s a national problem that we are trying to solve, not a state one.  It has to be.  After all, the problem is that it’s too big, so we must be talking about the national situation.

Limato: Okay.

Pedro:  But the solution doesn’t solve that problem at all.  We have given the states total control to deal with their own problems in their own way.  So they aren’t working on a national problem, the one about being too big, etc., they are working on their own problems, their state problems.  They’re totally independent state entities, not part of a national system, so they can only work on their own state problems, not the national one we set out to solve.

Tom:    Maybe, but they are still helping the country by working on their own problems. Their focus may be on their own issues, but by solving these they also help solve the overall issue of the “too big” and “too diverse” national problem.

Pedro:  But it makes a difference.  It’s the difference between a mediocre solution to that national problem, and a good solution.

When a corporation divides its work up into divisions, it still retains control of those divisions; it doesn’t let them just do whatever they please.  The Produce Section of the A & P doesn’t get to set its own rules for how it will run its division.  If it did, the results would have to be mediocre.  Each division going its own way would just produce a variety of so-so results and no real progress.  The key to a successful division of a problem into smaller parts is that the central authority still retains some control over those parts, so it can coordinate their efforts.  If it doesn’t do that it just ends up with a number of smaller problems, not a solution to the big one.

Tom:    Alright, I see your point. By giving the states total autonomy we haven’t really solved the “too big, too diverse” problem; we’ve solved another problem, the need for local state control in general.  If we had wanted to solve that first, national problem, we should have made the states into sort of divisions of a national school system, not totally independent states.

Pedro:  Tom is so good at this.

Limato: Yeah, I see.  The key difference is the cooperation between the states.  Currently they can’t do that, since no one could be said to be in charge of that cooperation, since they have total autonomy, so they are not really solving the “too big” national problem.  As Tom says, they may be solving some other issues, but not that one.

Pedro:  Or, we could say that they are trying to solve that national problem, but are restricted to doing this poorly, since they cannot cooperate on it.  All they can do is re-invent the wheel in each of their own states, and so never get to a good solution to the overall problem.

Bob:     But there are other good reasons why we have state control, such as the need to be close to the problem.

Pedro:  Quite so, but that is a different issue.  I just want to prove, like Euclid, that the statement “we have a decentralized, state-run, school system because this helps us deal with the size and diversity of our country” is false.  That can’t be the reason we put the states in charge, since their autonomy makes it impossible for them to solve that particular problem effectively. It may seem like having the states in charge would help solve it, but that’s because we have let ourselves slip into considering a different problem, not the one we set out to solve.

Limato: Yeah, yeah.  But that and a dollar will get you on the subway.  It’s not going to change those Cretins in Albany.

Pedro:  We’ll see.


Peter Dodington

July 2, 2015