National Public Education
25Nov/170

A Conversation about National Public Education

I was sitting in La Rana, my favorite bar in Decorah, Iowa, when I spied a friend whom I had just met a few days before at the bar.  He had moved to Decorah from the East Coast to work for a local non-profit, and had an interesting take on Mid-West and US problems in general.  He asked me what I was up to, and I said I was writing a book on public education.  His eyes lit up and he asked me to explain.

Me: When I was teaching in the public schools, I started wondering why we had a state-run, diversified, school system.  Was this really better than the national systems almost every other country had?  Could there be some kind of a link between this system and the poor performance of our schools?

He: But there are all sorts of reasons why our schools do poorly.  Half the students in the public schools are from low-income families; many of these families have serious problems that interfere with the kids' learning, not to mention that there has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in this country.  Many people simply don't want good schools, or just don't care about the education of those poor minority kids.

Me: Perhaps so, but none of that negates the fact that we might improve the schools overall by having a different structure for the system.  Perhaps some of those outcomes you mention are, in fact, linked to our state-run structure.

He: How could that be?

Me: Well, for one, our state system works against providing an incentive for the public to support the schools.  At the state level, that is, not the local level.  The local schools work fine, but local taxes provide only about half the cost of the schools.  The rest comes from state taxes.  Federal support is negligible.

At the state level, it turns out, you are stuck with paying for the cost of the schools with your own state taxes, but then have to share the benefits from the schools, such as less crime, better productivity, better public health, etc., with the rest of the country.  The graduates don't stay in your state; they move to other states.  This means that there is little incentive to produce really good schools.  The only level of schooling you will ever want is the average level of all the other states, since then you don't lose anything when your graduates move away and are replaced by graduates from other states.  The better your graduates, the more you lose when they move away, so you will never want to fund really good schools.

The states are trying to fund a collective good, which spreads over the whole country, with individual, autonomous, payments.  As many economists have pointed out, this will always lead to mediocre outcomes.   The system itself could be the main reason why the schools stay mediocre.

He: So what's the solution?

Me: A national school system, where your taxes are applied to all the kids in the country, the same ones who provide the benefits.  Then it would make sense to make the schools as good as possible, since each improvement will come back directly to the national taxpayer in the form of national benefits.  You would be sharing the benefits with everyone in the country, but also sharing the costs with them, so it would work.

He: That would never work.  The real problem is that we aren't teaching the kids correctly.  The schools are too rigid; they don't emphasize creativity enough.  They are run by a huge bureaucracy.  And you want to make that bureaucracy even bigger! How could that ever lead to better schools?

Me: A bigger bureaucracy is not necessarily a worse one.  Look at your state tax forms; are they better than the federal tax forms?  Look at the military.  There's a huge bureaucracy that runs the best army in the world.  Of course it's bureaucratic; all large public programs have a certain amount of bureaucracy.

He: Fine, but where's the evidence that a federal program would work?  You need to go back and get more data.  It seems to me that the federal programs haven't worked very well in the past.

Me: There is no data on a new idea.  There's just a logical argument that it would work. And, of course the federal programs currently don't work; they are not in charge, the states are.   I'm not proposing that the feds take over more of the current system.  I want to change the system.

He: I still don't see how the feds would do better than the states.

Me: That's not the point.  I'm not saying they would do better, but that they could do better.  That's all.  Whether they actually do this is still up to them.  The point is that the states can never, ever, do better.  They are locked in to mediocrity by the structure of the state system itself.

Your state can make their own schools as good as they want, and still end up with mediocre schools in the long run, because the public will not fund the schools at any other level. It's simply not in their interest to fund really good schools when all the other states are mediocre, and those graduates migrate into your state as adults.  So you can make good schools, but no one will fund them, so they will eventually revert back to the mediocre status quo.

There is no guarantee that a federal program will be better, but at least this is possible, which is a step in the right direction.

He: I'm not sure most people will be able to understand all this.

Me: But you do; why not others?

 

Peter Dodington

November 25, 2017