National Public Education

Hey, Parents, It’s My Money, Too


There is a fundamental problem with what are called “Educational Savings Accounts,” the plan to give parents back the money they have spent on their child’s public school education (in taxes) so they can spend this on other “choices”, such as a private school.  Aside from the fact that such a scheme weakens the public schools by taking money away from them, the plan just doesn’t make sense.  The math doesn’t work.

If the schools were private, it would make sense to pay back the parents of a child who “opts out.”  They paid that money into the school, and now should get it back if they take the child out.  But the schools are not private, they are public.  The cost of that child’s education was borne by the entire community, not just the parents.  If you are going to give back the money spent on that child, shouldn’t you also give some back to the general taxpayer, who also shared in that cost?  The money came into the program from all the taxpayers, not just the parents, so why is it going back only to the parents?

I realize that this way of looking at it seems odd to us, but that is only because we are so used to thinking of the public schools as if they were private.  We assume that the true “clients” of the system are the parents of the children in the schools, so their concerns should guide policy.  In reality, though, the system is paid for primarily by the non-parent general public (who outnumber parents by about four to one).  They are the true “clients” of the system, since it is their taxes which actually pay for the schools.

So it doesn't make sense to give back the cost of the child's education to only the parents. This says nothing about the value of parents or the need to support them as much as possible.  It's just simple logic.  As my father used to say, "put the numbers into the equation."  We need to remember that we have a public school system, not a private one.

Why do non-parent taxpayers, after all, pay for most of the support for the schools?  Isn’t it so that the children involved will grow up and become good citizens and benefit us all?  Don’t they lose something, then, when these children “opt out”?  Each time a child leaves the school system that goal becomes that much harder to realize.  The general, non-parent public do not benefit from these opt-out schemes.

Who does benefit is the state school system.  They save money every time a child leaves.  They do give back an amount equal to the average cost each taxpayer pays for that child’s education, but this is considerably less than the amount they save by not educating that child.  It is not hard to see how this works.

There are more taxpayers than students, so the per-taxpayer cost for the entire program is considerably less than the per-student cost.  The state doesn’t give back to the parents the full cost of the child’s education (as they would if the schools were private), but only the parents’ portion of that cost, which has been shared with all the rest of the population.  They give back the per-taxpayer cost, not the per-child cost.  This is logical, since you don’t want the parents getting back more than they paid in, but it also means that the state is coming out ahead each time they let a student leave.

Where, then, does that money come from that the state is “making” on each opt-out?  From the general taxpayer’s pocket.  They’re the ones who are still paying the same tax each year but are now getting fewer and fewer educated students.  The money that they paid into the school system in order to educate a certain number of students is now being used to educate a lower number.  The difference is then just expropriated by the state.  This is why the state legislatures agree to such schemes; they benefit from them. Who doesn't benefit, though, are the rest of us, the general taxpayers.

I am a parent; I have nothing against this group of people.  I would just like to see some logic to how we run our school system.  It is not funded just by parents; it is funded by the general population.  If we don’t pay attention to that fact we will not have any public school system for long.

Peter Dodington

June 24, 2017




Independent Funding of a Collective Educational Benefit

If we want to build a collective project, one that will serve the entire community like a cell-phone tower, we cannot let each member of the community decide on their own how much to pay for it.  We can't just let everyone go to the cell-phone company and put down the amount of money that they think is appropriate, as if you were buying a toaster at a yard sale.  That wouldn't work.  Obviously everyone would just pay the least amount they think they can get away with.   You would never get a good cell-phone tower that way.

So we never do that.  We always agree ahead of time on what we will charge everyone. We have a meeting, or some kind of a group discussion, and decide how much each person will spend.  Then we can build as good a tower as we want.  We decide that we want X amount of benefit and so need Y amount of cell-tower, and agree to fund it at that level. Then it is possible to build a good one, or to improve it to a better one if that is necessary.

This is such an obvious rule that we tend to overlook its importance.  For any joint project, or game, or sport, or just a party, you have to talk about who is going to do what before you begin.  You can't let the kid in right field just wander off to play second base. The kids on the playground have a meeting first to decide who will do what.  Then the group will work together well.  No one starts a group project without first deciding these things.

But this is precisely what we do in our state-run public school system.  We try to fund the collective benefit from the schools with money from the independent, autonomous, states.  These 50 states never meet as a group to decide how much they should agree to spend on education; each state is allowed to decide totally on their own. Consequently the entire program is underfunded and is unable to improve.  The structure of our state-run decentralized school system, then, is the central cause of the stagnation and dysfunction of the public schools.

Our school system produces a collective good because the graduates of the schools, the source of the public benefit from public education, such as a lower crime rate, a better economy, better health, and more unity, spread all across the country.  The graduates may have, at one time, stayed in the states where they were educated, but they do so no longer.  At least half the educated population is living in a state different from where they were educated.  When we say that we are paying for public education because it makes our country stronger, we are saying that we are paying for a benefit that is collectively shared throughout the country.  It doesn't just make our state stronger; it makes the whole country better, and that's the way we want it.

But we don't have any way to pay for this on a national collective level.  We can't have a national meeting to decide how much we should pay, or any way to do this through our elected representatives.  We let each state decide independently.  That's what a decentralized school system means; the states are in charge.  That means that they will always opt for the minimum amount, not the best, or even the good.  They will usually pay only what they think is the average amount of the other states' contributions. Paying any more than that would always be a waste, since they would then be paying more but only getting the same benefit as everyone else.  Consequently there is no incentive for them ever to choose to pay for an excellent school system, and so we will never get one.

Nor is there any incentive for them to improve the schools.  Once they choose to be as close to the average for all the states, they have to stay at that level.  Nothing else would make sense.  We have locked ourselves into permanent stagnation of educational funding.

People have a hard time seeing this because we get hung up on the need to fund our local schools and support the needs of our own children.  But only a quarter of the population has children in the schools.  The rest of us support the schools because of the public benefit we get from them, a benefit that is spread all across the country.  It is that collective, public benefit for three-quarters of the population that we have no good way of paying for, and which is consequently holding back the improvement of our schools.

The solution -- and the only way to improve the public school system -- is to create a national system of public education so we could collectively decide how to fund this collective program.

Peter Dodington

April 1, 2017






What Dr. Peterson Gets Right, and Wrong

I have always admired the work of Paul E. Peterson.  He is a thorough, conscientious researcher who takes seriously the core issues of funding and reform in public education. He knows a lot about the field and is not shy about letting us know what he has figured out.  All the more reason, then, to point out the parts of the school system he has not figured out.  He is so close to a solution that would actually improve the schools throughout the country that I really want him to “drill down” (his term, and a good one) just a bit more.  Much of what follows is a response to his 9/21/14 article in the Wall Street Journal: “How the Education Spendthrifts Get Away With It.”

What Peterson knows is that funding is the key to school improvement.  This, in itself, puts him two or three steps ahead of most commentators, who seem to feel that newer, better, and stronger educational programs can be produced out of thin air.  In spite of its title, his WSJ article is not about money wasted, but rather the “cloud of confusion and inconsistency” that surrounds educational funding.  He knows that money does matter, so wants to find out why we are unable to figure out how to spend it correctly on public education.
In the article he points out that most Americans want to spend more on public education, but that when they are reminded that this will raise taxes, the percentage in favor drops precipitously.  He then goes on to report on how the public also overvalues their local schools compared to other schools in general.  He attributes this to a general confusion about how the public schools are funded, and speculates that the public suffers from a kind of “buyer’s delight,” which gives them the impression that the education they have purchased is automatically better than that which others have purchased.

But if this is so, why doesn’t the public have the same problem with other public programs?  Why don’t they automatically feel that they have the best police force, or the best public hospital?  There must be some particular problem with public education that is causing this confusion.  That is what I would like to examine.  Let’s take the first problem first; why is it that we have trouble understanding that educational improvements have to be paid for by new taxes?
It cannot be that Americans in general don’t understand that better social services cost money.  Everyone knows that a new fire truck will be expensive, or that well-trained, effective policemen don’t work for peanuts.  Nor are they unwilling, in certain situations, to support their local schools effectively.  A resident from the New Jersey suburb where I grew up, where the high school usually ranks in the top 50 schools in the country, recently told me that she pays a property tax that is close to 6 figures, per year, in order to live there and send their kids to that school.  So it is not the residents of the high-end suburbs that have this funding misunderstanding, but the average, overall population.  Why is that?

The answer is simple: people pay for results they can see.  The fire truck, the well-trained police officer, and that high-end school all produce results that a taxpayer can see with his or her own eyes.  The benefits are obvious, so there’s a good reason to fund the program with higher taxes.
But why, then, don’t the average taxpayers want to pay more for these benefits?  Because they cannot see these.  We have a problem with the demonstration of the public benefit from public education in this country.  This is what Peterson doesn’t know, or at least does not want to talk about.
The key concept here is that there is a difference between why parents fund the schools and why everybody else does.  Parents get an immediate benefit from the quality of their school, and a long-term benefit, too, from the success of their child.  This benefit they can readily see and understand.

The non-parent taxpayers, though, who actually account for three-quarters of the support for the schools, overall, (since parents only make up about a quarter of the population) get just a long term benefit from public education, namely the general increases in productivity, civility, good health, unity, etc. for our country.  A non-parent is not paying for good students, he or she is paying for good graduates; the good adults who eventually will know how to solve an insurance problem, run a business, or understand that you might want to sleep after 11 p.m. on a weekday.
The problem is that the non-parents have no way to see how their contributions to the schools, at either the local or state level, are contributing to this benefit.  There is no data on this kind of outcome.  No one keeps track of how the schools lower crime or raise the GDP.  Yet surely they schools do, there is no doubt about this.  The problem is that this is not demonstrated to the general non-parent public.
Without this kind of information, the general public has to treat the schools as a kind of charity.  They may like the idea of supporting something that they sense is beneficial to them, but in the absence of any hard data on actually how this happens, they are not going to open up their wallets.  It’s not that they are confused, as Peterson argues; they are the ones who have thought it through and realized that it is not, apparently, in their interest to support improvements to the schools, since they will never see any results from this.
This is why school funding only works in the high-end suburbs.  There are no non-parents there.  The entire population is usually just parents. They can see how they directly benefit so have no trouble with the costs.  Our current system, then, works for that kind of a school program, but obviously cannot work in general, since the three-quarters of the population who are non-parents has to live somewhere.  The average, overall population has to be full of non-parents.  Since they cannot see how they benefit from the schools, they will always tend to balk at higher taxes.
This is why, too, the public has such a biased focus on their local schools.  As Peterson reports, they overvalue their own school by a factor of two.  This is simply because they don’t get any information about the success of other schools.  That is, success that matters to them, such as less crime or a better economy.  At their local school they can see that at least someone is benefitting, namely the local parents whom they know and care about, but cannot see anything about who is benefitting from a distant school.  It’s not some kind of “buyer’s delight” that gives them this impression, as Peterson posits, but a simple result from the way we have structured our school system.  For those other schools they are, by definition, non-parents, and we don’t have any good way to demonstrate the public benefit to non-parents.

But, you will say, my local school cannot track that kind of public benefit; the graduates move all over the country.  A reunion from my little suburban high school brings adults from 20 or 30 different states.  Quite so; this is not a task for the local school.  Other countries do it by having a national school system that can keep track of such matters.  In our country, though, we have given that job to the states, since that is the way we interpret our constitution.
But clearly the states can’t do this much better than the local schools.  Of those graduates at my reunion less than half were still living in New Jersey.  This is a double problem for the states.  Not only do they not have a simple way to track these out-of-state graduates, but they don’t want to track them, since the benefits those graduates are providing is mostly going to out-of-state residents, not the residents of the state which paid for their education.  Tracking them would just emphasize how much their own state taxpayers were losing by funding good schools.  The better the schools, they more they lose by the out-of-state migration of the graduates.  So the states leave the whole topic alone. Hence, no tracking of graduates, no demonstration of public benefit, and no incentives for the non-parents to fund good school.

There is no solution to this problem through better individual schools, better teachers, or a national curriculum, let alone such ideas as vouchers or charters.  It is a structural problem built in to the fabric of our state-run system.  The only solution is to join the rest of the world and set up a national school system, not a state-run one.  Then all these “confusions” would get cleared up and we could start improving the schools.

Peter Dodington