National Public Education

Media Problems in Public Education


The other day I read an article in the Raleigh, NC, News and Observer on problems with the new regulations for the use of the so-called “529” college-savings plans for K-12 private school expenses.  (The new tax bill recently passed by congress allows funds from these plans, which are tax-free, to be used for private K-12 schools as well as for college.)  Finally, I thought, someone has realized the fallacy of using public money, in this case in the form of an exemption from taxes, to support a private program, namely private schools.

The article, however, made none of these points.  It took a strictly consumerist approach to the topic, limiting its criticism to the danger of using this plan in North Carolina where one might incur an increase in one’s state taxes.  It turns out that North Carolina eliminated the state tax exemption for these 529 plans back in 2013, so, as the law stands now, one would owe state tax on any use of the savings in your 529 plan for a private school in the state.  So, the article says, we should “hold off” from using these funds at this time, or until that law is changed.

The article did mention that there were two points of view on these public/private issues, but only quoted the usual bromides about how any benefit to the private schools harms the public schools, and how having a “choice” in public education is an American right.  Nothing was said, at all, about the overall logic of using public funds to benefit a private program.

These 529 plans are part of a public law, passed and supported by the general population of this country, because it helps lessen the heavy financial burden of college.  The benefits from such a plan can be used by anyone, rich or poor, for any college. That’s why it was passed.

Using this public plan to support private K-12 schools is a different story.  Here the money can only be used by parents wealthy enough to send their children to private schools.  The money can’t be used to support public schools for everyone for the simple reason that such schools don’t have tuition.  They can’t use this kind of assistance.  This means that the general public is now supporting a plan that benefits only a very small part of the population.  That won’t work in the long run; eventually the public will figure it out and pull the plug on such an obvious misuse of their tax funds.

Why, then, doesn’t the reporter on the News and Observer point this out?  Why does he only want to discuss whether his readers will make or lose money with this program?  Is that the only issue in this debate over public and private schools?  Why doesn’t this reporter, who seems quite intelligent in his comments on the tax issues involved, bring out these more general problems?

The answer, of course, is that he is an employee of a private organization, a newspaper, that is a business; that makes its money by advertising, and so has a built-in bias against any organization, like the government, that doesn’t contribute to that business.  The government doesn't advertise.  It’s not just that he cannot afford to offend the businessmen who might want to advertise in his newspaper; it’s that the whole idea that the government, as in government-run public schools, might be in the right in this discussion, and the private sector, as in private schools, might be in the wrong, is not something he can print.   He’s on the private side of the ledger; he has no interest in talking about anything that puts the idea of private enterprise in a bad light.  His salary is literally paid for by private business; he has to side with their interests.

We don’t have a truly public news outlet in this country, like the BBC or CBC, fully supported by the government.  Even so-called “public” radio and TV is mostly paid for by private individual and private corporate donations.  NPR gets only about 10% of its funding from congress.  So, of course we don’t have unbiased coverage of issues, like public versus private funding for education, that involve the differences between private and public money.

When people tell me that “no one agrees with you,” they mean, of course, no one in the media, which is where they are getting all their information.  How could it be any different?  That doesn’t mean, though, that they have the right answers.


Peter Dodington

February 10, 2018



Homeschooling Problems

Recently it has been reported that a number of children in California have been abused at home, and that the parents hid this from authorities by keeping them home and home-schooling them.  In California one needs only to inform the state that you are keeping the kids home in order to qualify for homeschooling.  There are no required tests, curricula, or visits by a teacher.  Officials commented that this was by no means an isolated incident.

How have we let this happen?   Is it now possible to keep children out for no reason at all?  Thirteen states, like California, have no restrictions on homeschooling.  All you need to do is inform the state that you are doing it.  What ever happened to the idea, not so long ago, that a truant officer would round up any child not in school and take them to class, or fine the parents?  What was the point of that?  Wasn't it that there was a value, for all of us, for every child to be in school?  That this would make our society stronger and better?

It is argued that this is an issue of "freedom" and "liberty."  Parents should have the freedom to send their child wherever they want.  But why does this only apply to education?  Should we also give parents the right to live in a certain area, or have a certain doctor, or a a certain job?  Would that work?  We do have a "choice" in education -- it's called private school.  You can go to any one of these you want.  But, when the schooling is being paid for by other people, as in a public program, you have to meet the requirements that those people have put in place.

But can't I opt out of this program?  No, you can't, any more than you can opt out of shoveling your walk when it snows, or driving at the speed limit.  A public program has to be the same for everyone.  As I have often noted, the whole point of a public program is to solve a public problem; that is to say, a problem that deals with other people, not just your own needs.  We have a police department to change the behavior of other people, not ourselves.  Of course we could also do this privately, and just hire body-guards, but this works much less well than a public police department.  Then, if the point is to change other's behavior, you can't very well just let them opt out.  We have public education because there are societal benefits from a well-educated populace.  Letting people opt out of the program weakens that benefit.

Why, then, do the states do this?  Because they benefit from it.  It costs them money to educate each child, so letting them be homeschooled helps their bottom line.  This is true, as well, for the districts.  Fifteen fewer students could well mean one less teacher, and a significant savings in salaries and benefits.  But does it make sense that we are paying for a program, with our taxes, that is trying to get smaller and smaller?  Is that the outcome we want?

When you look at the entire homeschooling concept, you can see that it has grown out of the idea that the public schools only benefit the parents, not the general public.  From that point of view, of course it makes sense to let the parents choose how they will use this program that has been set up to service them.  It's "theirs" to do with as they will.  But this view is wrong.  Public schools are not run by the parents, they are run by the entire population, the people who pay for them.  It belongs to that group, not just the people who have children in the schools.  A private school is run by the parents, but a public school is owned, and run, by the general population.  As such, solving just the parents' problems, as in their need for "freedom," will never work.  The program was set up to achieve higher goals.

In all of this the media is absolutely clueless.  They always view the situation as if it were a matter of a private purchase of a service; as if these were private schools.  This is because the media, themselves, are private organizations.  We don't have a BBC in this country, paid for by the government.  Everyone, including Public TV and radio, rely on private businesses for their funding.  That puts them on the side of the consumer, the individual parent trying to find the best school for their kid.  That this whole school program is being paid for by taxpayers, who have their own needs, is ignored.  Consequently, they misunderstand the situation.

I have many friends who homeschool their children, and know many wonderful people who have been homeschooled.  That doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do.  Public education has more important goals; ones we need to pay attention to if we ever want to achieve them.


Peter Dodington

January 20, 2018



Tax “Reform” and Public Education

Now that the tax bill has been signed and is the law of the land, it is time to look seriously at how it will effect public education.  As is common knowledge, the bill takes away the deduction allowed for local and state taxes (SALT), if these amount to more than $10,000.  In other words, last year you could deduct from your income the amount you paid in local and state taxes, when filling out your federal tax return.  This meant, in effect, that you only had to pay 2/3 of the "sticker price" of those local and state taxes, since 1/3 of this was being given back to you by that deduction from your federal taxes, assuming your overall tax rate was around 33%.  Now this would not happen for everyone who is paying more than $10K in local and state taxes.

To me, this means that we will end up with 1/3 less public education.  I don't see any way around this, though this is not what is usually mentioned by most commentators in the media.  There we hear all about how this cut "may" affect the public schools, and how "advocates for public education" are "worried" that this may harm the schools.  No one wants to look at the numbers.  The savings plan for private schools is then often brought up, but this will affect only a tiny amount of money compared to the SALT provisions.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are involved in SALT taxes.  Cutting those services by a third will be a huge change.

I read somewhere, some time ago, that the whole reason the SALT plan was in this bill was that it was the main way that the other tax cuts, such as for corporations and the "one percent," could be funded.  Without it, the overall plan would not work.  That is how much money is involved in the SALT part of the new law.

What no one in the media is saying is that this has to mean less public education, (as well as less police protection, public health, garbage pickup, streetlights, parks, water supply, internet connections, etc.).  Each of us only has so much money to spend.  If now we will have to pay the full price for our state and local services, instead of  2/3 of this, we will obviously only be able to afford 2/3 of the services we used to get.  For example, if the various governments used to charge us a total of $20,000 in taxes, including property taxes, for their services, and we all were paying only $13, 300 for this last year, we are not going to suddenly come up with that extra $6,700 this year.  Instead, the state and local governments will have to drop back to finding a way to just charge us a total of $13,300.  That's all we will pay; that's all we have.  To do that, then, the governments will have to cut back their services drastically, by about a third.  It's just simple math.

But, you say, what about the exclusion for anyone paying less than $10,000?  Yes, that will affect a good number of people, but it will not affect the bottom line for the states and the local governments very much.  The property taxes on a large house in a wealthy suburb can easily approach $100,000.  That is where the local and state governments get their money.  The exclusion helps the low end of the economic scale, but the finances for local and state governments are dependent on the top end of the scale.

So what does this mean for the school?  It has to mean fewer teachers, bigger classes, less repair to the buildings, cheaper books, fewer "amenities" like art, music, foreign languages, a library, sports teams, and absolutely no improvements of any kind.  Doesn't education cost money?  Doesn't less money mean less education?

What is so bizarre about all this is that the party currently in power has been saying for years that the problem in pubic education is centralized control; that what we need is more state and local control of the schools, not any "interference" from Washington.  But here is a law that turns that notion on its head.  It will cut back all the local and state programs, and do nothing to lessen the federal role.  Does that make sense?  This program will centralize control of the schools more and more.  Perhaps I, who call for a larger federal role, should be happy, but it is such a wasteful way of doing this.  This law will harm public education.

So, a sad day.  As my son, an ER doctor in a large city, has said, we may well look back on this law as the beginning of the end of public financing of our schools and public hospitals.  Let us hope not.  We still have the vote; let's use it.

Peter Dodington

December 23, 2017




Public Attitudes towards Education, Part III

The other day I was talking with a friend about his experiences as a band teacher in small towns in Iowa.  On finding that I had taught in New York City, he asserted that he would quit rather than teach in one of those "urban" schools.  He couldn't believe that I actually enjoyed working in such "terrible" places.

Well, maybe I am a bit odd, but look at what the data from that Kappan/Gallup poll tells us about those urban schools.  As you may recall, we saw that about half the people in the country think their local school is good, and well more than half think that distant schools are not good.  At first glance this seems logical, since we middle-class types, with our good schools, naturally think they are fine, and the rest of the population, such as the people in cities, have to put up with less good schools.  The general belief is that our overall school system is made up of a bunch of good schools, no doubt in middle class places, and a bunch of weaker schools, probably in the urban areas.

Leaving aside the inconsistencies in that view, which I discussed in the last two blogs, let's just look at what it says about exactly who it is who is favoring their own local schools, and what this says about those "terrible" urban schools.   Now, in the data, 50% gave their local school and A or B, and another 31% gave them a C.  So fully 81% of the population thinks their local school is either okay or good.

But wait, doesn't that include a good number of urban families, ones who attend those "terrible" schools?  About 62% of our US population lives in cities, and the Kappan/Gallup people are very careful to weight their sampling methods to accurately reflect this.  If the majority of the people sampled live in cities, then, and the majority of their opinions are in favor of their local school, there have to be a good number of urban families who actually think that these "terrible" schools are in the decent to good range. So what is going on?

First, let me say that such a finding is in keeping with my own experiences teaching at low-level urban schools.  No one was complaining to us about how bad the school was. On the contrary, the parents seemed to be very grateful for what we were doing.  And I probably had fewer complaints from parents than I had  in more affluent areas or private schools.  These parents had other things to worry about, such as poverty, crime, and the job of raising children in a poor area.  For them, as they often told me, the school, for all its low-performing data, was one of the few places around that was actually helping them.   For even particularly good students, whom you might think would do much better at a "good" school, the outcomes are often quite good.  The teachers, after all, are not all that different from teachers in general, and so are educated and caring, and particularly interested in paying special attention to those excellent students.  Strangely enough, a good number of really successful adults come out of those urban schools where they had spent their days doing special projects with teachers who loved them.

So, in fact, these urban schools in low-income areas are not "terrible" for most of the people who go there.  Yes, they have low scores on various measures, but for the people there they seem to be doing okay.  People seem to realize that although there are families with problems in that neighborhood, and this pulls down the scores, overall the schools are doing more or less what they should.

So, what conclusion can we draw from this?  Why does my band-teaching friend think he would hate teaching there?  The answer must be that there is some kind of bias in the way we are getting our information about these urban schools.  I'm not talking about racism, though no doubt that, too, exists.  A more powerful bias, it seems to me, is just that we would prefer to talk about the problems of someone else's children rather than our own. So this means that the TV commentator who has the choice of doing a story on drug use in his own, suburban school, or in a city school, chooses the latter.

I don't see that this kind of bias will change any time soon, and I am not going to "blame the media" as so many do.  I just want to remind all that we need to pay attention to this kind of bias in our perceptions about schools, particularly ones in urban areas.

Peter Dodington

December 17, 2016




Why Teachers Dislike Charter Schools


As the media never tire of pointing out, the people who are in charter schools all love them, and the only ones who are against them, it seems, are those teachers and their Union, no doubt because they want the “extra pay and less work” a Union job supplies.  We seldom hear from the teachers themselves, though.  (In fact, almost every quote in the media seems to come from someone who is already benefiting from a charter school.  Where are the comments from the average man on the street?)  To help remedy this unbalanced coverage, I, a sometime teacher, would like to offer the following comments.

To me it seems that teachers are against charters because they, almost alone, can see how traditional schools do help kids grow into successful adults and provide a public benefit to us all.  They know the kids; they see them grow and change in front of their eyes, so they have direct evidence that the schools, even in their current somewhat dis-functional state, do provide some part of what we want from a public program.  They do work, though not as well as we would like.  They are helping the kids mature into the kind of adults we want in our society.

Teachers, like everyone else who works with young people, don’t just want them to do better on tests, competitions, and awards; they want them to do better in life.  You can see this when a child comes back to visit after they have graduated.  The biggest smile on a teacher’s face is not when his or her student wins some award or, Lord knows, does well on a standardized test; it’s when they come back ten years later with a good job, a nice boyfriend, and plans to change the world.  That’s what matters; that is what we are all paying for in this public program.

The problem is that teachers are virtually alone in this knowledge of the public benefit from public education.  There is no data on the adult success of the graduates of the schools.  The only ones who can see this are the kids themselves, their parents, and the teachers who have worked with them.  No one else has any idea that it actually happens.  No public schools, in this country, keep track of their graduates.  The public has no way to telling whether getting a kid to pass algebra actually helps him get a decent job and so keeps him off the streets and out of trouble.  We all have a hunch that this does probably happen, but there is no direct evidence of it from the schools we are supporting.  Only the child’s family and his teachers know.

Charter schools turn away from this public benefit.  The whole reason they exist is that it seems that these long-term public benefits do not really occur in the public schools (since there is no direct evidence of them), so we need to focus just on the immediate private needs of the children and families involved.  They purposely break the ties with the overall public system, the bureaucratic apparatus that tries to produce a public benefit from the schools, and pull back to just making the classrooms work better.  Privatization, in general, is repudiation of the notion that the public programs provide a public benefit.  It’s an argument that the public part of the program is not working, so we need to make it private.

But teachers know better.  They can see that the kids do grow up and so benefit us all.  They know the kids.  That’s why they are against charter schools.  They don’t want to abandon the effort to make good, happy and beneficial adults, which would mean focusing just on the grades, awards and test scores of the students.  They want to make a better society, not just a better school.

Peter Dodington

November 6, 2016