National Public Education
9Dec/170

Elizabeth Green and Charter Schools

Elizabeth Green, the creator of "Chalkbeat" and the author of several excellent works on the public schools, has written an article for the Atlantic about Eva Moskowitz and her charter school network.  In that article she says that she worries about where these charter organizations are headed, with their wealthy donors on their boards, but feels that they are the "most promising model we have for public education."

But I don't want to discuss either Ms Moskowitz or the charter school movement. Instead I want to ask why Ms Green rejects the other options for our schools, such as the traditional government run schools.   I want to look at what Ms Green says about public education in general, and see if we an figure out what she thinks is going wrong there, and whether there is any solution to those "public" problems.  If not, then we might turn to a discussion of things like charter schools.

Ms Green says that when she started to write a book in 2010 about the public schools, she realized "how impossible teaching is, especially in traditional public schools."  She points out that other countries are able to supply good materials, goals, and training to their teachers, but our governments do not.  Part of the problem, she says, in the confusing mix of local, state, and national authority in public education.  She wants a system that is "equitable, accountable, and parent-friendly," but does not see how our governments can supply this.  She goes so far as to worry that "democracy as we know it is a problem."

All this is true.  But why, then, not try to fix the democracy?  Before we turn away from it, and give up on a workable public system, why not try to change that government system so that it does work? That would not be impossible; we still are able to vote on changes in the way we govern our public programs, aren't we?

Ms Green, herself, hints at how we might approach this problem.  At the end of the article, she turns her attention to the boards that run the charter school systems and finance the charter-specific aspects of them. She worries, quite rightly, that the people who control that money might use these funds for their own ends.  She sees, rightly, that those who control the money in these programs control the essence of these charter schools.

Let's apply that kind of thinking, then, to the public school system.  Where does the money for that system come from?  Obviously, the taxpayers.  And not just the parent taxpayers, who only make up a quarter of the population, but the general taxpayers who don't have children in the schools.  They, as in "we", are the source of the money that makes public education happen; we, ourselves, are the "board" for the school system. That's why it's called a "public" system; it is funded by that "public."  When I was a teacher in the New York City schools, almost everyone I met on the street was paying part of my salary. The money, and, actually, the control, of public education comes from the taxpayers.

But you can see right away that there are problems.  Why were those people on the streets of New York paying me?  I wasn't teaching their children.  So was I providing them some kind of public benefit, like less crime and a better economy?  But where is the evidence that this is happening?  Almost all of that money goes to the state and local governments, but do these governments ever tell us anything about those public benefits?  All they tell us is what happens in the schools, not the effect of this on us, the people paying for those schools.

Well, you might say, that is too complicated.  Who can fathom the workings of state and local government?  It's so "political."  But if you can work your way through why a hedge-fund owner might want to support charter schools, I think you can also start to figure out our decentralized state and local public school system.  There are some obvious truths that are apparent to anyone who looks in that direction.

Take, for example, the issue of teacher training, which Ms Green has particularly focused on, quite rightly.  Who is in charge of this in the public schools?  Not the local districts, and not the federal government, which provides less than 10% of the funding for the school system.  It must be the states.  But why should the states want to do this well?  Do the graduates of their programs stay in their states?  Not at all.  So why should they focus on spending their good state tax money on this?  They don't get any direct benefit from it.  They have to share the results of their program with all the other states, so why should they ever try to make their program better than the average level that the other states provide?  So that's why we have average, mediocre, teacher-training programs. There is no way around this as long as we allow the states to run these programs.

In Ms Green's article, the words "state government" do not appear.  That is a problem. She has such a good understanding of the schools; she just needs to take it to the next level.  Where is the public money coming from, and what is wrong with the way we are doing that?  There are public solutions to our public school problems, but we won't ever find these unless we examine the fundamental structure of the system we are currently using.  Before we even start to think about alternatives, like charter schools, let's look critically at the public system we have, and see if we can make it better.

Peter Dodington

December 9, 2017