National Public Education

The Robins Build a School

I heard this story from a homeless man I often see wandering in the woods of Inwood Hill Park, in northern Manhattan.

Once upon a time the robins were complaining that their young were not learning the skills needed to succeed at adult robin life.  Hardly any of them knew, for example, how to intimidate a hawk, or the broken wing trick.

“What we need to do,” said Robin Redbreast, “is build a school.  And let’s make it open to all, regardless of their wealth or background, so our whole flock will benefit when all the young become better and more productive robins.”

“But no outsiders,” said Cock Robin, who had been tweeting his friends and just joined the conversation.  “The school should be only for the children of our own local community, those who share our values and ideals.  We don’t need any outside interference.”

“Of course,” replied Robin Redbreast, “It will be a public school, but only for the young of our flock.  All the funding will be raised from our own local taxes, so we can have total local control. “

And so it was.  The school was a success from the start.  The young robins learned the knowledge and skills needed for adult life and, most importantly, the attitudes and ideals of the flock.  They became productive and civic-minded robins, adding to the wealth and happiness of the whole flock.  Everyone was willing to support and improve the school because it was clear that each graduate brought them a significant benefit.

In time, though, the school’s success created its own set of problems.  As they became more educated, the young robins realized that they could succeed anywhere in the forest, not just in their own flock.  The opportunities and the pleasures of the world outside drew them away more and more.  Eventually most of the young were choosing to live elsewhere as adults.

“And why, then, are we paying to make this school any better,” Cock Robin wanted to know, “when most of the graduates go off to benefit other flocks in other parts of the forest?  The better our school gets, the more we lose when they migrate off to other flocks.  It’s true that we get graduates back from these other areas, but by definition they are only of average ability, since they come randomly from a variety of places.  It only makes sense, then, to just support the school up to that average level.  We’re wasting our money if we try to make it really good, better than the others."

“But the school does help our children,” said Round Robin, the parent of two small robins.  “I want to do everything I can to make it the best possible place of learning.  We all need to pull together to help our children.”

“That’s fine,” continued Cock Robin, “but you get the direct benefit of your children’s education no matter where they go in the forest, so it makes sense for you to make the school better and better.  What benefit do I, or any other non-parent taxpayer, get, other than the vague sense of helping my neighbor?  I’m willing to put in some money, but I can’t see the point in making the school much better than it already is.”

“Well,” pondered Robin Redbreast, “we could ask the state to help us.   Many of our graduates settle in the state and so benefit all the state residents.  If we shared our school costs with them, paying state taxes and getting back state aid to education, we could come closer to equalizing the costs and benefits of the schools for all the residents of the state.  Then it might make more sense for everyone to support the schools fully and try to make them better.”

And so it was.  Soon the amount of school funds received from the state equaled or even surpassed those raised locally.  But support for the schools still remained stagnant.

The problem was that the state had its own mobility issues.  Fully 39% of its graduates, by the latest robin census, had moved out of the state to somewhere else in the forest.  That was enough to make the state taxpayers think twice about fully supporting calls for improvements to the schools.

And perhaps more importantly, the state had no real ideals or goals of its own that would energize the robins to support their state programs.  No one believed in the state.  The Robins cared about their local communities, and they cared about the whole forest, their nation, but were generally indifferent to the success of their state.  In a sense they didn’t actually want their state to become a lot better than other states; they wanted them all to be similar.  What was the point, then, of building up the state-run school system, when its final goal, the improvement of the state, was not what they wanted?

So the schools languished; not failing, but not getting any better either.  The parents continued their efforts, but these were always undercut by the resistance of the general non-parent population to any increase in expenditures.  The partial benefit that the average tax-paying robin received, due to the mobility of the graduates, led to a partial support of the schools and, consequently, a locked-in mediocrity.

Everyone kept grumbling about the sorry state of the schools, but no one seemed to be able to make them better.  Finally, Robin Hood, a gym teacher at the local school, called a meeting to address the problem.

“What bothers me most,” he began, “is the waste of effort.  We keep coming up with plans and procedures on how to improve the schools themselves, and many of these are excellent.  But our problems cannot be solved at the school level.  We could make the best school in the forest and still not change the fundamental reasons why our schools end up being mediocre.  The problem is in the structure of our school system, not the schools themselves.”

“The only solution is to adopt the school-system structure that every other animal uses, a forest-wide system.  Then we will share in all the benefit from the success of our graduates, since few ever leave the forest permanently, and our costs will be likewise shared across the forest.  When these costs and benefits are again equalized, it will once again make sense for each of us to fully support the schools, and they will improve.”

“Furthermore, we believe in what the forest stands for: the ideals set down by our Founding Robins.  We want to make the forest as strong and good as we can, unlike our feelings about the state.  The forest is actually our community in a way that the state can ever be.  Structuring the schools around the forest gives us a truly workable rationale for improving the schools.”

“No, no; you can’t do that,” called out Round Robin.  “The forest council is too big and too strong.  They will force us to educate our children only their own way.  What will become of our freedom of choice to teach our young as we see fit?  Perhaps the schools are not as good as they could be, but at least they are our own.  I’m not going to be told what to do about my own kids.  I’ll take my freedom, no matter what the cost.”

“But we wouldn’t be changing our level of freedom at all,” said Robin Hood.  “We would still have the local school systems, and could make them as strong as we want, stronger than they are now.  It is only the state part that needs to be replaced.  Once we put in a system that actually works we will have the flexibility to adapt it to our needs.  We could make it as centralized or decentralized as we want.”

The flock was silent.  Many respected Robin Hood, and could see that there was a good deal of merit to what he said, but the change seemed so enormous.  It would threaten, they thought, the very foundations of their flock.  Hadn’t their ancestors come to this forest precisely to avoid this kind of government intervention?  His plan might work, but perhaps too well.

But Robin Hood wouldn’t give up.  He kept arguing that a forest-wide system was the only way to have a working public school system in a mobile society, and no one could prove him wrong.  Eventually the states decided that being in charge of a system that could never work was not what they really wanted, and agreed to give up control of the schools to the forest.

Then the schools finally did improve.  The forest council standardized the things that needed to be standardized, like the tests for graduation and the distribution of resources to each school, and also emphasized the humanitarian and community-building ideals of the Founders.  They left the actual running of the schools, though, to the local flocks.  If anything, there was less big-government interference in the local schools, since everything ran so smoothly.

The parents were pleased and the general public was too.  They could now see how their support benefitted them, since the forest could easily tally the success of all the graduates no matter where they settled.  The public schools were finally back to where they had started, when everyone could see how they benefitted from school improvements and so it made sense to fully support them.  The schools improved, the young robins learned more, and in time the whole flock became more civilized, productive, and happy.

After all this the robins were tired but content.  They had fixed a problem no one thought was solvable.  They decided that their next meeting would be on medical care.

Peter Dodington

Aug. 30, 2011

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