National Public Education

The Flat World and Education — A Review

Linda Darling-Hammond has written a thorough and thought-provoking book about the need to reform our schools.  There is much I agree with and much that I question, but I feel she is on the right track and hope that she will continue down the road she is on.

Reversing the usual order in discussing a teacher’s performance, I would like to start with the problems.  The first is that she mentions “education,” not “public education” in the title of her book.  But her subject is not “education,” any more than a book on public health is about “health,” or a book about public water programs is about “water.”  The whole problem she wants to discuss is the “public,” governmental, nature of this school system.  She knows this, and doesn’t discuss anything about education in general, such as private schools or “how education hampers creativity.”  She is a public education scholar; let’s call her subject what it is, “public education.”

Secondly, the subtitle is “How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future.”  This emphasis on equity is misplaced.  In general, the problem in the schools is excellence, not equity.  We could make the system as uniform as we want and still have mediocre schools.  We don’t just want equality of outcomes; we want good outcomes.  The thought behind this push for equity seems to be that the good, wealthy schools will always stay that way, so we can get to excellence by just bringing all the other schools up to their level.  But there is only so much money in the pot.  The states, in particular, are broke.  Pushing for the same outcomes everywhere is bound to push all outcomes towards the middle, not the top.

There is a legal argument for equity, since the state constitutions require it, but I don’t think that is where we should put our efforts, either.  I just want to make each school better.  I taught in the South Bronx and I want those schools to have more resources, but I don’t want them necessarily to look just like Scarsdale, in the suburbs, where I also taught.  Scarsdale has its own problems; it needs help, too.  The only solution is to make them all better.

And thirdly, Ms Darling-Hammond takes a purely in-house view of the problems of our schools.   Like all education professors, it seems, she is long on noting what is wrong, and very short on devising concrete plans to remedy the situation that will work.  In a way, she reminds me of a factory worker sitting on the loading dock with his friends, running through all the things that management “ought” to do.  There’s a certain value in this, but also a certain frustration.

Unlike those factory workers, we citizens don’t have to just sit and complain.  We own the factory; it’s our money that runs it.  We can change it.  But that means figuring out how it affects us, and what we want, and how we can bring this about.  Ms Darling-Hammond does not mention the words “public benefit” in this book.  She doesn’t see that there is a connection between the schools and the public that is the key to real change.

But she comes close.  She gets as far as seeing that the center of the problem is not in the schools themselves, but in the districts and the state legislatures.  And, that it would also help to get the federal government more involved.  I particularly like how she suggests that the federal government could help teacher preparation through national scholarships, incentives, a national assessment for applicants, and uniform licensing policies.  That would be great, but it is hard to see how it could get around the Constitutional mandate for state control.  Also I like her suggestion that ESEA be revised to stipulate that states provide the level of “opportunity indicators” in each school, not just test scores, if they want federal funds.  These indicators specify things such as the quality of the books, materials, classrooms, advanced courses, teachers, etc. in use.  This would put the emphasis on the quality of the school, where it ought to be.

So she is getting there.  She has moved from just looking at the schools as the source of the problems to seeing that the governments that run them, or, in the federal case, not allowed to run them, are part of the problem.  She just needs to move one step further and look at how the taxpaying public, the source of the funding for those governments and therefore the schools, is a crucial aspect of the problem and its solution.

A few lovely comments that need to be quoted.  That Singapore is as multi-racial as we are, yet has managed to organize a national program that benefits all, thereby shredding the argument that America is “too diverse” to have a national program.  And that Finland has “lean national standards” to assist its local districts in the planning and implementation of good practices, which puts to rest the complaint that a national program would smother local district policies.  We, too, could have a “lean” national presence.  And, finally, that increases in spending at the state level are generally higher in areas other than education, for all the complaints about how much we spend on public education.  The increases for prisons are particularly remarkable.

I’m looking forward to her next book, when she starts to incorporate public taxpayer attitudes into her arguments.

Peter Dodington

October 29, 2016



Do We Want a Successful State-run Program?

Suppose that we had a successful state-run school system in this country.  One where the states were increasing their educational success and the public was generally satisfied with their progress.  What would that look like?  Would it be something that we would want?

If we wanted the state system to work, we would have to lessen the amount of mobility out of the states.  Currently only about 62% of the U.S. population is living in the state they were born in.  This means that, roughly, more than a third of the people educated in any one state move to another.  What is the point, then, in working hard to make your state’s educational program excellent?  More than a third of the benefit from that excellence is going to move off somewhere else.  The only logical way to treat such a situation is to aim for a middle ground in your educational efforts, so that you don’t produce graduates who are better than average.  High mobility has to lead to mediocre state programs.

In Canada, where it can be argued that provincial-run education does work well, the percent of the population that is living in the province where they were born is about 85%.  Only about 15% leave the province they were educated in, or less than half the U.S. rate.  If we want to succeed at a state-run program here, we would have to get our out-of-state migration rates down to about that level.

Then it would make sense for the state residents to invest in their own state’s educational programs.  If you all stay in the state,  then it makes sense to hire good 7th grade math teachers because the better students they produce will be the ones you work with, or live next to, later in life when both you and they are still in your state.  Then you all will have better jobs and better communities, and your kids will too.

But only if you, and your kids, stay in the state.  You cannot move to another state for a better job, or more opportunity, or a better climate.  And, you cannot take advantage of the power of this country, either.  You have to rely on the power of your state.  Google may be doing well, but that is not going to affect you unless you happen to be in a state where they operate.  To benefit fully from your state’s educational program, you have to regard it as your one and only source of power and success.

This means, too, giving up on any attempt to improve the overall educational strength of the U.S.  A state program has no control over the country as a whole.  To make a state program work you have to focus on that program, not the country.  Of course, success in the state may help the country succeed, but this is only by chance.  The state cannot set out to improve the country.  State success may have little effect on the overall improvement of the country if other states do poorly and cancel out its contribution.  A state program cannot change the success of the country as a whole any more than it could change the educational success of a foreign country.

In the end, then, making the state-run school system work would mean shifting our allegiance to the states rather than the nation.  It would mean that we would actually have to care more about the success of our state than the success of our country.  The state would have to become our true home, not America.

So we could make our current state-run system work.  The question is, do we want to?  Do we ever want to put our efforts more towards our states than our country, and do we want to limit ourselves to residing only in the one state where we were educated?  If the answer to these questions is no, then there is no way we can ever have a successful state-run educational program.

Peter Dodington



Current Views on National Public Education

When I first started thinking about national public education, about 20 years ago, very few people wanted to discuss it at all.  You only heard it mentioned when some politician vowed that he would never “run our schools from Washington.”  Now, though, little by little, the topic is being brought up.  No one seems quite ready to call for a fully national system, but many commentators see the need for some form of incremental change in that direction.

Writing in 1991, Dwight W. Allen proposes a national system of public schools, run in conjunction with the existing local and state system, which would be used to test current theories and practices.  He envisions “a national experimental schools network: a nationwide system of schools with a balance of national, state, and local control” (Schools for a New Century (Praeger, New York, 1991, p. 1-2).  He is particularly interested in testing new uses of technology for the schools in this way.

Allen argues that we have only “the illusion of local control.”  Just about every one of the 16,000 districts uses roughly the same curriculum, written by the same textbook publishers.  Each state is technically autonomous and could choose to teach whatever it pleased, but in practice they all teach about the same thing.  There is, in reality, a de facto national curriculum, set by the colleges and the textbook makers.  Similarly, there are de facto national college admissions tests, the SAT and ACT, run, again, by private organizations, not the states or the districts (p.44).

A national structure for our public schools, Allen argues, would paradoxically increase the power of the local districts.  It would free them up to concentrate on more important matters than schedules and pay scales.  They could then turn their attention to the actual curriculum and practices of their schools, since the more bureaucratic issues would be taken care of at the national level (p. 47).

In all of this Allen is right on target.  He sees the problems with our current system and knows how a national system would solve them.  My only comment is that he doesn’t go far enough.  Leaving the state and local systems in place and just adding a national level is clearly not going to make the school system run better.  To do that you would have to simplify the overall structure, which means replacing the current hodgepodge with a fully national system.  It is true that a system of experiment schools would allow us to test practices and materials before they are mass produced, but this is not a great enough gain to convince the public of the necessity of such a fundamental change.

In the forward to Allen’s book, Terrell H. Bell also comments on the problems of our current system.  He says:

The problem, then as now, is that no one is in charge of U.S. education; it is larger and more complex than any and all of the mechanisms we have on hand to deal with it.

Very true; we actually have no mechanism to deal with the problems of U.S. education.  It’s not just that we don’t have any solutions; we don’t even have the tools or structures to implement those solutions if we ever do find them.   Each state can affect only a small fraction of the problem, and the states are supposed to be in charge.

Morton J. Marcus, in his book Tightrope to Tomorrow (Bloomington, IN, 1997), argues that most funding for public education ought to come through the federal government.  He proposes that one logical source for these funds would be the social security program, since educating our young is one of the best ways to provide a prosperous future for our elderly.  He envisions a “Federal Education Commission,” which would manage the school system in the same way that the Federal Reserve, he says, manages the banks.  He does not go into how this would affect current state and local education programs, if at all.

Marcus’s arguments for federal funding are quite good.  He says:

Many Americans believe that the customers [of education] are the parents of the children who attend the schools, [but]…parents… and teachers…have less influence than taxpayers-voters on how much education will be produced or the nature of that education ….If all taxpayers were parents, we would not have to distinguish between the two set of the population.  But in America today, only 35% of all households have children under age 18….Hence, if education is important to the nation’s economic growth, a system of education should be fostered which benefits, and is seen to benefit, the general public as much as, if not more than, students and teachers (p. 36-37).

As I, too, have suggested elsewhere, the real customers for our public schools are the general public, who outnumber the parents two to one.  We therefore need to provide an educational system that benefits, “and is seen to benefit,” that general public.  Marcus realizes that the important issue is not benefit per se, but perceived benefit, and that this is where our current system fails us.  The schools do benefit the general public; the problem is that this benefit cannot be seen.  Federal funding would solve this crucial problem.  He continues:

The issue, then, becomes one of defining “community”.…If the consequences of education are limited to the students and those in his or her immediate household, then parental control of education is most logical.  If the locality alone supports the schools and the benefits are all contained in that area, local control is warranted.   But in our times…the benefits, extending well beyond the borders of the school district or state, are shared by the student and a much wider society. Therefore, it becomes timely and perhaps necessary to consider a broader program of financial support for schools and a greater role for the nation in the governance of education (Marcus, p. 49).

If the “community” of the local public school is truly the entire nation, because its graduates, and the benefit they bring, scatter throughout the country, then it only makes sense for the entire nation to share in the funding.  A national system is the only way to equalize the costs and benefits to each taxpayer.

Marcus also counters the argument that privatizing the school system would  be another way to equalize costs and benefits for the schools.  He notes that any privatization would mean that the poor would get less education than the rich.  But, as he says, “education for the poorest child is an important as, or perhaps more important than, the education of the wealthiest” (p. 108).

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has called for a three-fold increase in the percent of federal government support for public education, from about 9% to 25-30%.  In his book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas (New York, 2009), he points out the flaws in the current view that schools should be strictly a local matter.

“Local control” is the most sacred principle in American education – a tradition so deeply ingrained in history and practice that its shortcomings are almost never articulated.  Yet a look at the history of local control as the organizing principle of schooling suggests that an approach that make perfect sense in the 1700’s is crippling American education today….Whatever its successes in the past, local control today assures four major problems:  Financial Inequality…between what is spent in wealthy states and districts and poorer ones; Inconsistent Standards and Inadequate Data; No Research and Development: and Union Dominance, since local districts are too small to fight national unions (Taken from an executive summary of his ideas published by the Center for American Progress online at, in March, 2008).

All this is well and good, though of course I would add to his “problems of local control” the issue of graduate mobility and consequent lack of perceived public benefit.

On the role of the federal government, Miller notes that it was Richard Nixon’s Commission on School Finance which first suggested that the federal government should help the states equalize funding disparities.  At that time the commissioner of education said publically that the federal government should pay 25 to 30 percent of the cost of public education.  There was even a rumor, reported in the New York Times, that Nixon was thinking of a national value-added tax to help pay for such educational expenditures (The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, p. 210).

Miller does not go into the exact details of how he would like to increase the federal presence in public education, but in general wants to lift teacher salaries, especially for those deemed high-performing, and use federal dollars to help innovative new programs that seem to be succeeding, as well as develop universal preschool, more research on education, and a better curriculum in global studies (pp. 212-213).  He argues that all this is bound to happen in time no matter what we decide today.  Just as it was once anathema to consider a federal role in retirement security or medical care, it will eventually be seen as quite natural to have the federal government support a large part of education in this country (p. 215).

A more direct call for a national school system is offered by Susan Jacoby in an article in the New York Times entitled “One Classroom, From Sea to Shining Sea,” (March 19, 2010, p. A25).  She says,

What made sense for a sparsely settled continent at the dawn of the Republic is ill suited to the needs of a 21st-century nation competing in a global economy.   Our lack of a national curriculum, national teacher training standards and federal financial support…all contribute mightily to the mediocre-to-poor performance of American students, year in and year out, on international education assessments(p. A25).

She notes that our current efforts to add incrementally more federal control of the schools, as in the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top,” will only result in “the worst of both worlds: broad federally mandated goals, and state manipulation of testing and curriculum.”   You cannot leave the control of the schools in the hands of entities such as the Texas Board of Education, she says, which recently cut Thomas Jefferson out of its curriculum (for his non-religious views), and still have a system that can compete with the rest of the world.  She continues,

No Frenchman could conceive of a situation in which school officials in Marseille decide they don’t like France’s secular government and are going to use textbooks that ignore the Napoleonic code.

Ms Jacoby has her doubts about whether we can ever solve this problem, but offers three “baby steps” to combat the problem: a voluntary national curriculum; invest federal funds in more educational research and development, especially in the area of teacher training; and pull back from the movement for more charter schools.   She characterizes the push for charter schools as “a further balkanizing of a public education system already hampered by a legacy of extreme decentralization.”

She ends with a quote from Daniel Webster at a memorial service for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who both died on July 4, 1826.  She says:

Daniel Webster…spoke of “an unconquerable spirit of free enquiry … and a diffusion of knowledge throughout the community” as two of the fundamental requirements of American democracy.  He predicted, “If they fall, we fall with them; if they stand, it will be because we have upholden them.”

She concludes:

These great principles cannot be upheld if the quality of our public schooling continues to depend more on where a student lives than on a national commitment to excellence.

Another comment on the value of a national education system in America was recently made by Andreas Schleicher, a senior education official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, an organization which helps coordinate policies for 30 or the world’s richest countries.  Mr. Schleicher notes that America’s system of standards and curriculum, controlled by states and local districts with a heavy overlay of federal rules, is a “quite unique” mix of decentralization and central control.  More successful nations, he has said, maintain central [national] control over standards and curriculum, but give local schools more freedom from regulation  (Reported by Sam Dillon in The New York Times, 3/10/10, p. A21).  Mr. Schleicher argues, as did Mr. Allen above, that more central control from Washington would result is less bureaucratic meddling at the local level.

What has happened to us is that, since we have left power in the hands of the states, who have not succeeded due to the mobility of the graduates, etc., we’ve had to bring in the federal government to try to fix the problems, but the feds can only “meddle” in the problem since they have no real control.  Thus we end up with the worst of both worlds: too little and too much federal involvement.  What we need is for the states and federal government to switch roles, so that overall funding and control would reside with the federal government, and as much flexibility as desired would be given to the local districts and states.

There are other promising signs of a movement toward federal control of education, such as the development of a “common curriculum,” and efforts by the Federal Department of Education to expand its role, but I will wait to see how these turn out before commenting on them.  In general, many see the problems, but few are ready to solve them.

Peter Dodington

August 5, 2011


The Founding Fathers on National Education

In the first years of our country, several of our most prominent leaders argued that our new government should adopt a national system of education.  From the start, our country seriously considered the value of a uniform system for all citizens.  These plans were not adopted, partly because our national government was so weak at the time, but national public education was always thought to be a viable option in this country.

Foremost among these leaders was George Washington.  In his first State of the Union address, delivered on January 8, 1790, at Federal Hall in New York City, he laid out his recommendation for a national university.

…Nor am I less persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is  nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature.  Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.

To the security of a free constitution it contributes in various ways:…by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; [and] to discern and provide against invasion of them….

Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by … the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients, will be well worthy of the deliberations of the legislature.

The need for a national university was one of Washington’s favorite themes.  He brought it up again in this farewell address, calling for the “promotion of institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge”, and in his will left money for the establishment of a national university.

While not specifically calling for a national system of public schools, Washington's plan would have strongly promoted such a system.  A national university would have influenced high school curricula throughout the country, since its entrance requirements would have been adopted as graduation requirements for most of the high schools.  It would have at least  created a de facto national curriculum.   Whether this would have led to eventual federal control of public education cannot be known, but it is surely not impossible.

Another group of founding fathers interested in national public education were the leaders of the American Philosophical Society.  They held a contest in 1796 for the best system of national public education in America.  This society was organized in Philadelphia in 1769, with Benjamin Franklin as its first president, Thomas Jefferson its third, and many of the founding fathers as members.  It offered a prize of $100 for “the best system of liberal Education and literary instruction, adapted to the genius of the Government of the United States; comprehending also a plan for instituting and conduction public schools in this country, on principles of the most extensive utility” (Quoted in Allen O. Hanson, Liberalism and American Education in the Eighteenth Century, New York, 1965, p.110).  The two winning proposals were by Samuel Knox and Samuel Harrison Smith.

Samuel Knox was a physician, educator and minister from Maryland.  His entry was published in Essay on Education (Baltimore, 1799).   He sets out to describe “an entire, general, uniform national plan” for education (Essay, p. 26).  In his remarks, he notes that he is amazed that national education, which seems to him to be as natural as sunlight, has not gained more prominence.

To have dwelt upon the natural advantages of national education, in the present enlightened age of the world, would appear like an eulogium on the benefits of the light of the sun to the solar system….It would appear, in some degree,          unaccountable that little hath been done in promoting some general plan of education equally suitable and salutary to the various citizens (Essay, p. 66).

He argues that using the combined resources of the entire nation to educate our children would be a much more effective, and efficient, method than the current scattered and incomplete attempts by individual localities.

Great…surely, must be the difference between the effects of education when abandoned to the precarious uncertainty of casual, partial, or local encouragement, and of that which has been established uniformly and generally by the united wisdom and exertions of a whole nation (Essay, p. 70).

Knox argues that the wide extent of our country, with all manner of different customs and conditions, makes it particularly suitable for a national system.

In…the United States of America, a considerable local diversity… must be the consequence of such a wide extent of territory, inhabited by citizens blending together almost all the various manners and customs of every country in Europe.  Nothing, then, surely, might be supposed to have a better effect towards harmonizing the whole…than an universal system of national education (Essay, p. 71).

Knox shared the Philosophical Society’s prize with Samuel Harrison Smith, an editor of several literary magazines in Philadelphia.  He proposed a complete system from elementary to the university level, all superintended by a national board of education.  He urges that the national government vigorously take charge of the education of our children.

…it is the duty of a nation to superintend and even to coerce the education of children (Quoted in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, Frederick Rudolph, ed., p. 211).

He spells out the entire system of education for children from 5 to 18, all run and organized by a national board.

It shall be the duty of this board to form a system of national education to be observed in the university, the colleges and the primary schools,…and to superintend the general interests of the institution (Rudolph, p. 213).

Instead of adopting any of these proposals, though, the national and state legislatures left public education in the hands of the local school districts.   The feeling evidently was that our settlers wanted to control their own education in their own communities, without interference from either the state or the national governments.   As we have noted, this has led directly to the current stagnation of our school system.

From the start, then, the concept of a national school system was supported by some of the best minds, and the best leaders, of the country.  It seemed the logical choice.  To adopt such a system today would not be to go against the ideals of our founding fathers.  They thought that such a national system was certainly possible, and to many, preferable.

It cannot be that Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, who worked so hard for public education,  envisioned for our schools the un-workable stagnant situation we have today.  If they were here, they would want a workable system; that is, national public education.

Peter Dodington

July 30, 2011


Small Town Ideals

In my first teaching job, on the high plains of eastern Montana, I taught English in a large, three-story brick building that towered above the low wooden houses and gravel streets of the small town of Brockton, Montana.  As in many rural communities built in the 19th and early20th century, the public school was the largest and most ornate building in town, easily dwarfing the stores, churches and entertainment establishments.  The original settlers had spent a considerable amount of money and effort on this imposing and elegant school building.

I often wondered about the exceptional quality of that building, and others like it in similar towns across the country.  Why did the founders of these towns build such grand public schools?  What was it about public education that made it so valuable to them, and what might they teach us about our own problems with schools today?

Those early schools must have provided something more than simply a service to the parents in those towns.  If they only had that kind of functional, day-to-day role, they would have been built like the other practical stores and places of business in the town; low structures of wood and fiberboard.  The school I worked in must have stood for something more, some ideal.

That ideal was probably the future growth and success of the community.  The founders of that town made it bigger, better, and more elegant than the other buildings because it represented their hopes for a bigger and better town.  They wanted the town to become as impressive and successful as that school building.

The school would bring this about by providing smarter, more skilled and more civic-minded adults.  Its graduates would grow up to become the town’s leaders and successful citizens, and these adults would share their success with all the residents of the town, making it grow and prosper.  The young man who had done well in algebra would use that knowledge to help everyone calculate things like the risks and rewards of early planting, and the woman who had studied Macbeth would help people understand the dangers of ambition and power.  Through the work of its adult graduates, the school would provide the means to improve and strengthen the entire town.

For these early settlers, then, the public school was much more than simply a place to educate their children; it provided a public benefit for everyone.  And since that benefit extended to all the residents, it made sense to charge them all equally for the school.  Everyone would succeed more if the quality of their residents was improved by education, so everyone supported the school.

This was the way public education was supposed to work in this country.  We set up small autonomous districts to run the schools, since local control was what the early settlers wanted.   When the graduates from the schools stayed in, or returned to, the community where they were educated, they provided a benefit to the same people who had funded their education.  As long as the children being educated would become the adults who would improve the community, it made sense to support and improve the schools.  Each dollar spent on the schools would come back as a future benefit to the taxpayer who had spent that dollar.

Notice, also, that the school itself did not have to do anything to promote this public benefit.  In these small towns there was no need for data on the success of the school’s graduates; it was obvious to all.  The public could see how they benefited from the school by just looking out the window at what the graduates were doing.  All the school needed to do was to keep track of what went on within its own walls: attendance, grades, tests scores, etc.  The school had a good relationship with its tax-paying public, but it was an informal, undocumented one.

Mobility and Mediocrity

If the graduates, however, did not come back to their community, the public would no longer be getting this public benefit from their school support.  They might feel that they benefited somewhat from the graduates who moved away, since they might encounter them in some other context, but they no longer got the full benefit of their investment.  Of course, other graduates from other towns moved in, but this did not necessarily mean that they were getting the full benefit they paid for.  It could well be that they were exporting a higher level of graduates than they were getting back.

This partial benefit led to the public pulling back on their support for the schools.  In fact, sharing graduates with other towns meant that, at best, they only had an incentive to support their schools to a middle level of excellence.  By trading graduates with other schools they were getting a benefit that was the average of all the schools whose graduates came to them.   It only made sense, then, to contribute only an average amount.   If the costs of something are born individually but the profits shared, one has to keep those costs to a middle range, comparable to the middle level of profits that the sharing enforces.  If you aim for the best graduates from your school, you will always be losing money.  The better your school gets,  the more you lose.  The mobility of the graduates brought about a situation where the public was aiming for mediocre schools.

The obvious solution to this mobility problem was to enlarge the community that was funding, and benefitting from, the education.  If the state became the center of public education finances, then everyone would get a fair return on their educational investment as long as the graduates stayed in the state.

But the states had their own mobility problems.  There was, and is, a wide variety between the states, but, on average, about a third of state residents no longer live in the state where they were educated.  This was enough to make residents think twice about fully supporting improvements.  State taxpayers also had to aim for a middle ground in their support for the schools.

This loss in the return on educational investment, though, only applied to the general public, not the parents.  The parents continued to get a benefit from the education of their children regardless of whether these graduates returned to the community or not.  The children of parents always “return” to those who supported their education, since they keep in touch with their parents throughout their adult lives and so bring back to them the fruit of their educational labors.  For parents it always makes sense to fully support the schools while their children are in them, since they know they will get back a full measure of the benefit due them.  Since they do not have to share the benefits of their support with others, they have the full incentive to maximize that support.

Parents, though, make up only about a third of the general population.  They cannot support the schools all by themselves.  Try as they may to improve the schools, their programs are always eventually undercut by the non-parent majority, who have less interest in making the schools better than average.  And since parents, by definition, are only parents of current school children for a limited time, they often abandon these battles even if they are making progress.  Why fight for better 7th grade math if your kids are now in high school?  The system of costs and benefits of public education still works for the parents, but that only means that the general push towards mediocrity is occasionally retarded.  The majority of taxpayers are still forced to want only moderate success for the public schools.

Modern Consequences

No wonder, then, it is so hard to improve the public schools today.  Graduates still do not stay in the same towns or states where they were educated, so the public still has no incentive to fully support the schools, and reforms are not funded.  The schools themselves, never having been in the business of paying attention to the public benefit, continue to ignore the problem and focus only on the needs of the parents.  The result is that there is a general feeling that there is no solution to the problem of  the general public’s support for improvements, so we may as well pull back to simply pleasing the parents and leave it at that.

Indeed, all the reforms in the last 30 years have been about making the public schools more focused on the needs of the parents, and less on those of the general public.  Vouchers, charter schools, smaller schools – all these try to make the schools more responsive to parents.  The issue of support from the general public is not even brought up, much less worked on.

These reforms would work fine if the schools were private, and funded only by those parents.  That would work.  But as long as we keep to a public system of funding, charging everyone equally, ignoring two-thirds of the supporters has to lead to stagnation.  The ignored majority will always pull the system back to the status quo.  When only one-third of your supporters has any reason to fully support the schools it doesn’t matter how well you serve that one third; you still will get a mediocre result.

We cannot solve the problems of our public school system with private school remedies.  If we actually want to try to fix the public system, we have to fix it with public remedies.  This means dealing with the problems of the general public, not just the parents.

The stagnation is actually a more serious problem that simply low performance.  It calls into question the validity of the entire public system.  A program that cannot change is a program that doesn’t work.  It would be one thing to have a low-performing school system that needed a lot of work to make it better, and we had some evidence that we could do that.  It’s quite another to have a system that seems impervious to any efforts to change it.  The first may eventually be fixed to meet our needs, but the second can only be allowed to slowly decay until we eventually throw it out entirely.

The Solution

In other countries the problem of the benefit for the general public is solved by having a national school system.  At the national level the mobility of the graduates (to another country) is low enough to give the population confidence that they can realize the social benefit from the schools.  Each taxpayer puts in his contribution to the national system and gets back exactly that amount of benefit, since the adult graduates remain in that system.  No graduate moves out of the school system you support and takes his benefits to another system.  There is only one system.

Under a national system, if you want to improve the education of people who tend to commit crimes, for example, you can do that with your tax dollars and know that there will be now be less chance of someone coming to steal your car, no matter where in the country that criminal went to school.  You can know that your own contribution to the schools helped stop the robbery of your own car.  Since your tax dollars are affecting all the people who might help or harm you in the future, you have a strong incentive to improve their education.

None of this happens under the state system, because you are only paying for the education of people from one state, yet can be robbed, or helped, by people from all 50.  There is no way for you to know whether your contribution to education will ever help you or your community, since all the graduates of all the schools throughout the country mix together in their adult lives.  You know that education does lessen crime, but you don’t know whether your own contribution to education is lessening your own exposure to crime.

If the entire country attends the same school system, it is easy to see data on the benefits from it, since one can just look at general national indicators, such as growth in productivity or the prison population, to get an indication of the effect of the schools on the public good.  One doesn’t have to rely on the schools to keep track of the public benefit; it will show up in the general national statistics.  If everyone in the country is taking the same math courses, a glance at the country’s production of technically sophisticated products shows whether the public is getting a benefit from those math courses or not.  The general social and economic indicators for the entire country can be used to show the public how they benefit from the school system.

Such a national system of public education only works, of course, if the tax money actually goes to the federal government.  Just having Washington keep track of the public benefit, while keeping the state-run system, would not work.  It would just produce a better way of demonstrating to the public how much they are losing through that state system.  The problem is not the data, it’s the money.  When you combine the mobility of graduates with small (i.e. state-sized) school systems,  each taxpayer’s contribution leaks out of each small system to such a degree that it makes full support illogical.  No amount of federal oversight or data collection by itself can change that.

We would not have to change the funding system for the local districts, however.  We could let the local districts focus on the needs of children and parents with as much autonomy as possible.   Local control does work for the parents and children.  It is the state part of the system that would have to be replaced by a national one so that the other two-thirds of the system also worked.

When this country was founded, many suggested that we create a national school system.  Washington wanted a national university, and plans for national secondary schools were put forth by Benjamin Rush and several others.  None of these plans were put into place, though, since our new immigrants wanted to set up their own communities and run their schools themselves.  This worked for them and produced many excellent schools.

In time, though, we seem to have changed our minds about those small local communities.  We still think they are a good place in which to raise our children, but no longer want to spend our working lives there.  There is nothing wrong with this, but the change in attitude has undermined the public school system.  Education needs communities that are stable over a long period, so the schools can return their long-term benefits to those who paid for them.  Our stable community has become, in effect, our country, not our towns or states.  It is the one place where we both grow up and live as adults.  As such, it has to be the basis for our public schools.

The problem is that, although we have changed our minds about the value of living all our lives in the same small town, we have kept the school system that was built around that pattern.  It no longer fits our needs, and so can only produce some fraction of the benefit we expect from it.  We have changed, so the school system needs to change.

If we changed to a national system we would in effect be going back to the original goals of the public schools in those frontier towns like the one I taught in long ago.  We would again have a school system that allowed us to see, with our own eyes, the benefits that the graduates of the school we support brought back to our community.  Everyone, then, not just the parents, would have an incentive to support the schools, since all would be benefitting equally.  With that kind of full support it would be possible to implement long-term improvements.  It the way the public schools are supposed to work.

Peter Dodington