National Public Education

Media Problems in Public Education


The other day I read an article in the Raleigh, NC, News and Observer on problems with the new regulations for the use of the so-called “529” college-savings plans for K-12 private school expenses.  (The new tax bill recently passed by congress allows funds from these plans, which are tax-free, to be used for private K-12 schools as well as for college.)  Finally, I thought, someone has realized the fallacy of using public money, in this case in the form of an exemption from taxes, to support a private program, namely private schools.

The article, however, made none of these points.  It took a strictly consumerist approach to the topic, limiting its criticism to the danger of using this plan in North Carolina where one might incur an increase in one’s state taxes.  It turns out that North Carolina eliminated the state tax exemption for these 529 plans back in 2013, so, as the law stands now, one would owe state tax on any use of the savings in your 529 plan for a private school in the state.  So, the article says, we should “hold off” from using these funds at this time, or until that law is changed.

The article did mention that there were two points of view on these public/private issues, but only quoted the usual bromides about how any benefit to the private schools harms the public schools, and how having a “choice” in public education is an American right.  Nothing was said, at all, about the overall logic of using public funds to benefit a private program.

These 529 plans are part of a public law, passed and supported by the general population of this country, because it helps lessen the heavy financial burden of college.  The benefits from such a plan can be used by anyone, rich or poor, for any college. That’s why it was passed.

Using this public plan to support private K-12 schools is a different story.  Here the money can only be used by parents wealthy enough to send their children to private schools.  The money can’t be used to support public schools for everyone for the simple reason that such schools don’t have tuition.  They can’t use this kind of assistance.  This means that the general public is now supporting a plan that benefits only a very small part of the population.  That won’t work in the long run; eventually the public will figure it out and pull the plug on such an obvious misuse of their tax funds.

Why, then, doesn’t the reporter on the News and Observer point this out?  Why does he only want to discuss whether his readers will make or lose money with this program?  Is that the only issue in this debate over public and private schools?  Why doesn’t this reporter, who seems quite intelligent in his comments on the tax issues involved, bring out these more general problems?

The answer, of course, is that he is an employee of a private organization, a newspaper, that is a business; that makes its money by advertising, and so has a built-in bias against any organization, like the government, that doesn’t contribute to that business.  The government doesn't advertise.  It’s not just that he cannot afford to offend the businessmen who might want to advertise in his newspaper; it’s that the whole idea that the government, as in government-run public schools, might be in the right in this discussion, and the private sector, as in private schools, might be in the wrong, is not something he can print.   He’s on the private side of the ledger; he has no interest in talking about anything that puts the idea of private enterprise in a bad light.  His salary is literally paid for by private business; he has to side with their interests.

We don’t have a truly public news outlet in this country, like the BBC or CBC, fully supported by the government.  Even so-called “public” radio and TV is mostly paid for by private individual and private corporate donations.  NPR gets only about 10% of its funding from congress.  So, of course we don’t have unbiased coverage of issues, like public versus private funding for education, that involve the differences between private and public money.

When people tell me that “no one agrees with you,” they mean, of course, no one in the media, which is where they are getting all their information.  How could it be any different?  That doesn’t mean, though, that they have the right answers.


Peter Dodington

February 10, 2018