National Public Education

Druids Dialogues V: Education as a Charity


Pedro and Limato are sitting by the window, looking out on a winter rain.

Limato: Well and good, but I was talking about these things with some friends --  yes, my middle-class homies in conservative Staten Island --  and they said our original premise was all wrong.  They don’t pay their ed. taxes to get any kind of “benefit” from the schools; they just want to support a good thing and help the families that have kids in the schools.  They don’t look for any kind of personal gain from this, any more than they would from the Red Cross or an animal shelter.  So they don’t need some evidence of this so-called benefit, and certainly not from the federal government!

Pedro watches the rain in the empty street, then, with a sigh, turns to his friend:

Let’s start with the difference between local and state taxes.  Our problem has never been with the local system, but the state system, right, and their taxes.  Of course the local taxes help the friends and neighbors, but what about the state?

Limato: They also help the local schools.  You yourself said that about half the school budget comes from the state. So state taxes also help their neighbors and friends, and their own community.

Pedro: To what degree?  How many local districts are there in New York State?  A few hundred?  So I give the state $100, and about 30 cents comes back to my own local district?  That’s why they support the state education tax?

Limato: All right; so that’s not a good reason.  Most of the money does go to distant schools.  But they would say that they still want to support this, since they believe in the value of public education.  It’s a donation to a good cause.  They believe good schools help everyone so they want to give to them, as a gift.

Pedro:  So it’s like a charity.  As you say, like the Red Cross.  They give with no expectation of benefit.

Limato: Right.

Pedro:  Okay, but, there are several problems with that.  First, those charities you mention do publish a good deal of data on how they provide public benefits to their donors.  There’s plenty of data out there on how helping disaster victims, for example, keeps the economy healthy as well as just relieving suffering.  You do benefit from this kind of donation.

Limato: All right, then, but take something like an animal shelter.  Maybe they just like saving kittens.  It makes them feel good.

Pedro:  Right; it’s your own pleasure you’re talking about.  You don’t need any benefit or return from this kind of donation because you are already getting one from your own feelings.  You like it. It’s like giving a quarter to a homeless guy on the subway.

Limato: Which I rarely do; but yeah, same idea.

Pedro: And does that help the guy?

Limato: Of course.

Pedro:  To do what?  To change his life and get back on his feet?  Not likely.  You’re helping him be a better bum.  That quarter helps him get through the day and be there again tomorrow with his cup out.  It doesn’t change him; it helps him stay the same.

Limato: So?

Pedro:  Wasn’t the whole point of this discussion from the start that we need to improve the schools?  You see, charity doesn’t do that.  It’s really a force for the status quo, not for change.

Limato: But people say all the time that they are giving to a program to make it better.

Pedro:  But not if they never see any results.  You can’t have it both ways.  Either you want to improve things and so need to see some results so you can judge whether this is happening or not, or you don’t, and so don’t need any kind of results or benefits.  The minute you say you don’t need results, you are also saying you are not interested in changes for the better, since results are the only way you could ever know about those improvements.

Limato: Hmm.

Pedro:  You can just look at who gets the benefit.  Is it you, and you are the one who now is feeling so good about those kittens, or is it the program and the people in it, not you?  If it’s the former, then you don’t need any overt benefit, since your’re already getting your own, but if it’s the latter, you need some.  It’s the evidence for what you trying to do;  it’s an integral part of the whole effort.

When we say the goal is to improve the schools we have to ask ourselves who is working on this problem.  Of course, the parents, teachers and kids, but what about the public?  Among them it’s only the ones who want results who can be said to be taking this task seriously.  The rest, the ones who see the schools as a charity, are just some lukewarm supporters of the status quo.  They're part of the problem, not the solution.

Limato: (smiling) Jeez, you get a bit twisted about this, don’t you.  (He drains his beer.)  I will let my magnanimous friends know of their error.  I’m sure that will change their minds.

Pedro:  (shaking his head with a smile) No doubt, no doubt.


Peter Dodington

July 30, 2015


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