National Public Education

Betsy DeVos’ Private Game off in Right Field

When I was in middle school, every day after school a group of us would get on our bikes and head for a vacant lot where we would organize a baseball game.  Each day we would pick sides, divide up the equipment, and figure out who was playing where.  This was so much fun that we did it for several years.

What would have happened if someone had then organized their own, private game off in right field, using some of our players and equipment, saying that they knew better how to play?  Would we have allowed that?  It wouldn’t have mattered that they might claim to be better players than we were, getting more hits or whatever, or that they included more of the poor kids or the less-skilled players.  The whole concept was wrong.  They had agreed to play the game together with all of us; setting up their own, private, game was a violation of that agreement.  We wouldn’t have allowed it, and we certainly wouldn’t have  let them expand these private games on to other parts of the playing field.

This is what Betsy DeVos is trying to do with public education.  She wants to take a group activity, something organized by the entire population, that is, public education, and break off a small part of it to play her own game with her own private equipment and people.  She claims that this works better, and is even more democratic, since she makes sure she includes people from a wide range of backgrounds.  But that is not the point.  She is breaking the agreement that we had from the start, that we all would work collectively for the success of that original program, the public schools.

Well, she would say, she is doing this because those public schools are not doing well; they need a new approach.  The original game was not producing the results we wanted.
But is her private game a way to fix this?  Back on that playground, would that private game in right field ever be seen as a way to improve the original game?  How could it do that?  It has turned away from that game and gone off on its own.  It may do well, but it is clearly not going to help the original game do well.  If we want to fix that original, collective activity, we have to work on that, not some separate edition of a private game.

Okay, she might admit, my game is probably not helping fix the big collective game, but that’s okay, because no one wants that game, anyway.  People want these small, private programs that seem to work so much better.  They produce results, and that’s what people want.

But if that is so, why didn’t we start out with these private programs from the start, since they work so well?  There are plenty of other countries in the world where the only good schools are private; why didn’t America take that path?  Isn’t it because we set this country up on the basis of equality and justice for all, not just for some?  We opted, then, for a large, collective educational program because we wanted to educate everyone to roughly the same level; that’s not possible with small private schools.  They will always produce a wide variety of outcomes, not equality.

The public schools were set up to solve a problem that could not be solved through private means: the education of the entire population up to a common level.  There is no way private schools can do this, regardless of how well they do, or whether they have access to private or public funds.  They solve some problems, but they don’t solve that one.  They are a rejection of the idea that everyone can be educated equally.

I would be the first to admit that the public schools have problems.  So let’s work on these, and not waste our time trying to create a parallel private system that we have never wanted, and never will want.  Let’s run that private game off the playing field, or, better still, talk them into rejoining the main group effort.

Peter Dodington

February 25, 2017


ollective, group efforts, like the public schools or that afternoon ballgame, are worth


Druids Dialogues IV: Public Education and the Media


The week was finally over.  Limato and Pedro sat with their Guinness as they recounted how last night someone set fire to the list of Regents scores posted outside the English office.

Pedro:  That’s one way to express your opinion of the test.

Limato: I guess he didn’t do all that well.

Pedro:  I’ll probably see him, or her, in next term’s remedial class.  I should check who likes to write about burning stuff.

Limato: Or just ask somebody.  They all know.

Bob and Tom join them.  Bob has something on his mind.

Bob:     Okay, I get all these logical arguments about the value of public programs, and the problems of private ones, but what I don’t get is how come I’m the only one?  If this is all so clear and simple, as it seems to me, why is it such a secret?  Why does absolutely everybody say the exact opposite; that only the moms and kids matter, not the general public?  There must be something wrong either with the way we’ve figured this out, or the way the world works.

Limato: That’s a no-brainer.  Since when was the world on the right path?

Tom:    But Bob’s right, there must be some reason why we never hear about this kind of argument.  All we ever get from the media is the most light-weight, even childish, points of view about public education problems.  Every silly complaint, every emotional or selfish thought is recorded and taken at face value.  The man on the street is put alongside the professor, the politician, and the teacher, all equally, until the only possible answer is that there is no answer.

Pedro:  True.  For all their talk about the value of “the public” and the need to “let the people decide,” you never hear the media actually favoring some collective action by that public.  They favor “the people” but only in the abstract; not when it comes to doing something that would benefit them.

Limato: Of course not; it’s not entertaining.  A public message?  Boring.  This is going to get people to listen?  Moms and kids are more interesting; like cat videos.

Pedro:  That’s true, but it can’t be the whole story.  I mean, the media actually does take a stand in favor of things like the right to choose your own school, or decide your school’s curriculum.  It’s not just entertainment they want.  They have a point of view, and it is not in favor of public, collective, action.

The group sits there, looking at their beers.

Bob:     (With a shrug) It’s not in their interest.  They don’t make any money backing collective action.

Limato: And I suppose they do backing the moms?

Bob:     Indirectly.  They make their money from ads, right?  Well, moms, and all individuals, buy things.  A collective group doesn’t.  A public group gets what it wants through collective, governmental, actions.  There’s no buying and selling of anything.  But ads won’t work unless there is buying and selling.  So it’s the private, market-based side of the ledger that the media is always going to favor, since that’s the side where their money is.  Radio stations and newspapers are private businesses, not public agencies.

Tom:    The government doesn’t advertise.

Pedro:  What people want for their children’s education is a very powerful force.  If we start solving that problem  through a public, governmental, solution, with no market involvement, the people who rely on that market, like those who sell advertising, will lose a huge amount of money.  So they want solutions based on individual, private, choices, not group action.

Limato: The point is to keep us wanting those private goods, whether we can afford them or not, since that is what drives the market economy, and the ads that go with it.  So that is what gets emphasized, logic be damned.

Bob:     And since when does a salesman worry about what you can or cannot afford?  It’s best to keep that a bit vague.  You want the big BMW, oh, that’s a good idea.  So we can’t expect the media to stress the fact that you can’t really afford that private-like education you keep harping about.  It’s better for the salesman that you don’t realize how much it really costs.

Pedro:  But we can’t be too hard on the media.  They have to make a buck somehow.  The real problem is that we have come to rely on them for virtually all our information on public education.  We turn to the New York Times and The Atlantic for the final word on the topic. We don’t have our own system of something like “information management,”  like the police do, or the hospitals.  You don’t see them letting the media say what is going on in their own operations.  They have a healthy respect for the power of the media to affect the success of what they do, so they keep it at arm’s length.

Tom:    They know that the media, and “public opinion,” can easily interfere with their success; like when there’s a rush to judgment concerning a crime or health problem.

Pedro:  That’s the attitude that’s missing in public education.  We don’t see how our own work, like equalizing success across the economic levels of our students, can be weakened by interference from uninformed public opinion, fostered by the media.  When was the last time a school administrator held a press conference to give his point of view on one of these issues, such as integration or testing?  Instead we just let the media interview us, alongside the uninformed views of the man-in-the-street.

Tom:    So the real question is not so much why the media gets it wrong, but why we don’t get it right.   It’s not really a media problem; it’s our problem.

Limato: How come each answer leads to another question?

Shrugs all around.


Peter Dodington

July 24, 2015



Private Homeschooling

Last week the New York Times had a front-page article on the rise of homeschooling in America.  It said that not only is the number of home-schooled students rising, but the regulation of this practice by the states is becoming less effective.  Not all states have clear regulations on what constitutes a proper home-schooled education, and some that do are not enforcing these.   The article notes that it is generally agreed that homeschooling typically teaches math and science less well than traditional schools.

Proponents of homeschooling, though, do not see why they should have any state regulation at all.  They are spending their own money, not the state’s, and are still paying state taxes for the education of everyone else’s children, so why shouldn't they be allowed to educate their own children as they see fit?  In general, they argue, home-schooled children do about as well as others.

The problem is, though, that they are still part of the public school system.  Long ago the general public decided that it wanted to impose minimum standards on evey child’s education, since this would benefit society in general.  This meant that the school system would not only govern the public schools, but would also check up on the private ones, making sure that they met various requirements.  Obviously such a system could only work well if it were applied uniformly across the entire population.

The question, then, that we, as the public, need to ask about home-schooling is not whether it benefits the families involved, or even whether it saves the state money, but whether it benefits all our families.  Does it help or hinder the effort to create a better, more educated, society?  I don’t think there can be any doubt about the answer to that question.

Home-schooling is, after all, a private form of education.  It is not some special form of a public school; it’s a private school run by, and paid for by, private individuals.  There’s nothing public about it.  The whole point is that the parents have rejected the public schools. Logically, then, it ought to be treated the same way any other private school, and so regulated by the same general restrictions states place on their normal private schools.  It’s not some new and innovative way to do public education; it’s a private school.  By definition, then, it does not help the public school system.

Nor could homeschooling ever be applied to the population in general.  The cost per year, when you figure in the lost wages for the family member who stays home, has to be around the same as the cost of a regular private school, that is, well into the 5-figures.  This means that homeschooling can never become the normal way for the general population to educate their children.  Only a small percentage can afford it.

So why is the public school system even involved with these programs at all?  A good question.  Perhaps it is because the home-schooling families want it that way.  They don’t want to be seen as private-school patrons, since that would cut them off from whatever general public benefits might be still available to them.  If the state is willing to treat them as a special part of the public school population and so give them at least some support, and a public school diploma at the end, why not take it?

But this should make no sense to the public, who are paying for this public program and so should have control over it, not give that control away to anyone who asks for it. How can we agree to a policy that lets anyone reject the school system we have set up, yet still claim to be part of it?

The core of this problem, then, as with many of these issues, is not with the families that are practicing homeschooling, but rather with the state government that allows them to do this. It is the state legislatures that are not doing their job; not representing the wishes of the public.  Their inability to define and regulate homeschooling correctly is just one more example of why we should replace state control of education with a national school system.

Peter Dodington

January 14, 2015