National Public Education

Druids Dialogue IX: Do We Actually Want a Good State School System?

Another late afternoon at Druids, the bar across the street from my school.  Two English teachers, their department head, and a special ed. teacher sit together talking about public education.

Pedro:  What is so strange about the problems of public education is that we constantly talk about something that simply is not true: that everyone wants a state-based system.

Limato: But of course we do.  We all want a decentralized state system.  It’s the American way.  American exceptionalism!  No one wants anything but.

Tom:    Do we?  Then why don’t we do anything about it?  Everyone says the bureaucracy is the problem.  So why don’t we fix the bureaucracy?  When was the last time you saw a demonstration on the steps of any state capital for education reform?

Bob:     Exactly, we all complain about the bureaucrats, but forget that there are ways to change government.  People do this all the time for things they care about, like civil rights or religious issues.  Everyone agrees that education is important, and that it needs reform, yet no one is out there working for this at the state level, the level we say we want.

Limato: So is everyone lying?  They don’t really care about it?  Why else would nothing get done?

Pedro:  Be…c…a..u…s…e they can see that it's impossible to improve the state programs.  The benefits will just move away.  It’s a losing game.  And the better you get, the more you lose.  It doesn’t make sense to try to make your state really good.

Limato: So you’re saying we’re not lying, we do care, but we also actually know that the state system will never work.  We’re twisted.  So that’s why it’s so hard to fix.  We’ve already decided we can’t.

Tom:    Or won’t.

Pedro:  Right.  Look at it this way.  What would the state system look like if it really worked?  Wouldn’t there still be some states with poor systems? Isn’t that the whole point of letting the states do it themselves – some would succeed and some wouldn’t?   But that’s what we already have. They say that Massachusetts has a school system as good as almost any in the world.  But does that solve the problem?  Not at all.  We still want the national level to go up.  We don’t actually want the kind of success that the state system would bring, even if it worked.  We don’t want 50 different success stories; we want one story – national success.

Bob:     But wait a minute.  Don’t graduates also leave the country, as well as the states?  Why isn’t that a problem?

Pedro:  Because it’s so much less.  The percent of those leaving this country in their life-time is down in the single digits, as it is for most countries.  So, something like 95% of the benefits you create from a public program in your own country will come back to you.  For leaving a state, though, it’s around 40%.   That means you will lose almost half the benefits you create in that state.  That makes a huge difference.  Mobility between states in American is about twice as high as between provinces in Australia, and three times as between provinces in Canada, or any other political divisions within any other country.

Tom:    Yeah, there is no real reason why someone should stay in one state or another.  There may have been at one time, when Massachusetts was Puritan and Maryland Catholic, or Texas an independent country, but those days are long gone.  There is no advantage to one state or another any more.

Limato: And there are laws against treating new residents from out-of-state differently than in-state in matters like property ownership or taxation.  We want it to be easy for people to move from state to state.  No one actually wants Nebraska to be all that much better than South Dakota.  We all want to be able to move to any state easily, which means they all should be about the same.

Pedro:  And these kinds of weak state programs seem to us quite natural, since what we really want is a strong nation.  The reality is that we have a de facto national education system.  Look at the way we talk about the problem.  No one ever says that Ohio is doing worse than Germany.  All the data, all the news, is about the national level of education.  Yet there is no such thing.  There is actually no “American” public education.

Tom:    Right, when you think about it, “American” education should be something like “European” education, a collection of different programs, each run independently.  Well, no one ever worries about “European” education, since there is nothing you can do about it.  No one ever looks at that data, or tries to change it, since no one is in charge of it.  Each European country goes its own way.  But for some reason we ignore this little bit of reality.  We continue to talk about American education as if it actually existed.

Bob:     That’s what has always intrigued me about this whole Common Core brouhaha.  We have this decentralized state system that allows each state to make its own curriculum in any way it wants.  So what do the states themselves decide to do?  Make them all the same!  I’m not arguing whether this is good or bad – it’s just that it’s not logical, given our state system.

Tom:    Well, the curricula never were all that different from the start.    No state has ever bothered to create its own unique way of educating its young, though theoretically that’s the whole point of having a decentralized state system.

Pedro:  How could they, since all the colleges are national in scope.  If Yale wants the Congress of Vienna on the curriculum you had better teach it, or no one in your state will be a Bulldog.

Limato: Yeah, every college is national, even the ones run by the states!  They all take kids from the entire country. So since we have what amounts to a national system of higher education, the high schools have to fall in line and produce a similarly national course of study.

Pedro:  In the end, what we all care about is our country, not our state.  People don’t admit that, but it’s true.  We are Americans, not Delawarians or Nebraskans.  We don’t even have words for it.  The state, per se, is a pleasing fiction.

Limato: Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived, as Augustine said.

Pedro:  Quod erat demonstrandum. QED.  We don’t actually want the state school system; we want something else, but are unwilling to work for it.  We’d rather be deceived.

Peter Dodington

August 28, 2015