National Public Education
20Aug/150

The Druids Dialogues VIII: State Aid to Public Education

The Setting: Druids Bar on 10th Avenue, across the street from our school.

Tom:    So when the grads moved away from the local districts, why did the districts turn to the state for help rather than the federal government?  Surely they could see that the nation could have helped them more than the state.

Pedro:  Good question; it didn’t make sense.  The problem was that their taxpayers were paying for benefits that they were not fully receiving, so they needed a way for the taxpayers to access those benefits.  That should have meant finding a way to share in the benefits being produced throughout the country, since that is where the benefits had gone to.  Their graduates didn’t just move within the state, they moved all over the country.  The solution, then, ought to have been to make some kind of national system where everyone could share equally in both the costs and the benefits from the schools.

Limato: Right.  The state could only solve part of the problem from the start, no matter what.

Tom:    And a national system would not necessarily have affected the operation of their local districts; they could still continue to provide local services to the local community, and local benefits to the parents and children, as always.  It’s just that the benefits to the non-parent part of their supporters would now be part of a national system, since that is where their benefits, the benefits provided by the mobile grads, took place.  The local system would serve the needs of the local parents, and the national system the needs of the rest of the population.

Limato: And this wouldn't harm the local districts.  Just like a baseball team isn’t weakened simply because it is part of a league.  You want the league to be strong enough to set up rules and policies that involve all the teams and the overall economic health of the teams.   That doesn’t mean that the teams themselves have to be any weaker.  You could actually argue that strong leagues make for strong teams.

Bob:     But, as we all know, logic was not in the offing for this situation.  The local districts were running the show, and they evidently felt that getting the feds involved would somehow be detrimental to their efforts.  So they turned to the states instead.

Tom:    You could even say that the states were chosen because they were weaker than the national government.  There’s a scary thought.  The districts wanted help, but not too much, since they still wanted to run the show all by themselves.  So they picked the states, since they knew they would always be fairly weak.

Pedro:  Yes. The rationale for the entire system was still centered on the ideal of local control.  Even though it was clear that this couldn’t work economically, as long as the grads moved about, no one wanted to give up on that ideal.  With that in mind, the only acceptable solution was just a continuation of the status quo, or as close to that as possible, and the states could provide that, since they were really not strong enough to change much of anything.

Bob:     And this is clear from the fact that the state contribution was always called state “aid” to public education, as if the center of the program was still the local districts and the state was just helping them out in a secondary role.

Pedro:  Also, part of the problem was that at the time it seemed as if the schools were doing about as well as they ought.  We were, after all, the most successful country in the world, by far, so how could it be that our school system needed much help?  No one in the early 20th century did any serious comparisons of test scores between various countries.  So there was no need, it seemed, to make any dramatic changes in the local-control system.

Limato: You could say that the goal of state aid was not actually to improve the schools, but just to allow them to continue in their current local-control mode.  From the start it was not about better schools.  There actually is no good reason to involve the state in public education more than the districts or the nation.  There's a rationale for having districts -- the whole small is better argument, and there's a rationale for having a national system, since this takes care of the mobile grads problem, but there is no real reason to have the states involved.  There is nothing they do better than any other entity.

Pedro:  So they brought in the state to help with this problem of the mobile grads undercutting the support from the non-parents, but the state had the exact same problem with their own grads.  About a third of all residents in our country no longer live in the state they grew up in.  That means, in effect, that state residents are losing a third of the public benefit from the schools that they paid for.  (It’s actually more like a half, since you also have to factor in that the taxpayers move.)  And, yes, this loss is replaced by the benefit from grads from other states who move in, but these are, again, of an average level, so it brings the whole program down to an average level.  Any success over and above that average then is wasted money.

Tom:    So you can see why the states don't want to track the public benefit from the schools, since to do so would make clear just how much they were losing to other states.  If they wanted to show that their schools had, for example, lowered the crime rate by educating the kids, they would also have to show that about half of this was benefiting residents of other states, not their own residents, the ones who paid for it.

Limato: Ergo, no data on the public benefit from the schools, so no demonstration of the benefit to the non-parents, so no incentive for them to support improvements, so the schools have to stay as they are: average and mediocre.

Bob:     Just what we all, in a way, chose from the start.  We valued so much this ideal that we could do it all by ourselves in our own little districts that we turned away from any plan that might actually improve the schools on a large scale.  We chose independence over success.

Tom:    But we still can’t see this even today; everyone still wants the schools to be more independent, more “free.”

Limato: What can you do?

 

Peter Dodington

August 20, 2015