National Public Education

The Druids Dialogues VII: The Parent Problem

Druids Bar on 10th Avenue in New York is quiet on a Friday afternoon some years ago, as four teachers sit with their Guinness.

Limato: So tell me about how the state would solve the problem of the mobile graduates and the local funding, back in the day.

Pedro:  In time, but first let’s get straight what was going on in those local districts before the state got involved.  One of the problems in understanding all this is that the parents were not affected by this flaw in the system, the flaw that the graduates moved away, taking their educational benefits with them.  From their point of view everything was still working fine.  Their kids were being educated, and they were still also getting the long-term benefits from the education.

Limato: How’s that?

Pedro:  Because they were their own kids, so of course they stayed in touch with them, and so shared in whatever success and benefit the kids achieved because of their schooling.  If a parent wants to know how his child’s algebra class affected his work as an adult, he can just ask the adult kid over the Thanksgiving table, no matter where the kid lives.  The parents have a built-in way to access, so to speak, the benefits from the education they have paid for.  In terms of their own kids, anyway.  Their part of the system is still working; they will always keep a connection to the graduates no matter where they go.  So they will see the long-term benefits of the education they support.

Tom:    And the non-parents don't.  They have no way to see how their support for education will help the kids as they grow up.  There’s no data on this, and they don’t personally know more than just a few of their neighbors’ kids.  So they have no incentive like the parents to support the current school program, since they won’t ever see the benefits from it.

Bob:     But the parents don’t support the schools simply to get a future benefit from their kid.  They support the schools so the kid will be happy and live well.  The benefit they themselves get is secondary.

Pedro:  True enough, but they still do want long-term benefits for the child.  Whether we should say they benefit from this or not is just a matter of what we mean by “benefit.”  Aren’t they happy when their kid succeeds?  Isn’t that a benefit?  And, of course, there is no doubt that their lives are simpler, and “better” in some sense, if the kid gets a job, has a family, has grandkids, etc.

Tom:    You could actually argue that what we all want for all the kids in our schools is the same thing: that they become “happy” and successful. It’s just that it is very hard to measure these things in the general population, so we have to look at things like the crime rate, or income levels, or marriage rates, to get any indication.  The point is that parents get to see some of this and the rest of the population doesn’t.

Limato: And it only affects their relationship with the school during the time their kids are in school; those 10 to 15 years or so.  During that time they have a strong incentive to support the educational goals of the schools since they know they will see how this helps the kids in the long run.  Once their kids graduate, though, they become like the rest of us, with no clear way to see the results of their school support.

Pedro:  True, and that brings up another reason why a lot of this gets ignored.  We all, or most of us, have been parents at some point.  (With a laugh, turning to Limato) And some without even knowing it.

Limato: (laughing) Why you lookin’ at me?

Pedro:  So we tend to remember how we felt about the schools at that time, since it was such an intense time of love for our kids.  So even after the kids are gone we still act like parents and  treat the schools as if they were providing us with that same kind of parental benefit that they used to.  We forget that now, as non-parents and members of the general population, we need something different.  We need to make the connection to those grads whom we are educating – it won’t just come to us as it did with our own kids. But we forget that.  We’ve been both parents and non-parents, but we let the parent mode dominate.

Tom:    So then we don’t realize that we need to do something about this lack of connection to the grads.  We think like a parent even though we aren’t, and this lets the problem fester.

Limato: So why can’t we just let the parents support the schools?  They have the incentive.

Bob:     Because, my dim-witted friend, they can’t afford it.  Didn’t we just go through all this? There are too few of them.  They need the money from the rest of the population.  That’s why we have public schools in the first place.  Parents are only a quarter of the population; they can’t do it alone.

Pedro:  And even if they could afford it, as sometimes does happen in suburban schools, they really are not all that good at supporting what the schools need, which are long-term solutions.

For example: suppose we decide we want better 7th grade math teachers.  So we set up a program to find these, and pay for their high quality, and train them well, and get them into the classroom.  This all costs money and time, spread out over many years, but will be well worth it in the long run.  But who will pay for this?  Not usually the parents.  Are they going to start paying extra when their kid is in the third grade? Even then they wouldn’t probably get the full benefit from the better 7th grade teachers, since it will take years to find and train them, and then a few more for them to reach their peak.  Their kid will be long gone by then.

This is why good private schools don’t pay for these long-term improvements out of tuition.  The parents don’t want to pay for something that won’t usually benefit them.  The schools have to set up some kind of “campaign” and get outside donors for things like better teachers.  Parents have too short a window to want to spend money on this. They will pay for better lunches, or a new rec. program that starts in the spring – things that will happen soon, but not long-term substantial changes in the structure of the whole school.

Tom:    We already have parent-only supported schools all around – day-care centers, for example.  They meet in church basements and pay their teachers less than the minimum wage.  That’s what true parent-only local control looks like.

Limato: So why does everyone keep talking about this?

Pedro:  Good question.


Peter Dodington

August 14, 2015