The Good of Public Education


What is “public education”?  More specifically, what is the social good that we seek to achieve to justify forcibly taking money from our neighbors (at every layer of government) in order to finance the education of other people’s children?

That second question may sound provocative, but it’s not meant to be. Rather, it’s descriptive.  Both questions got some airing at the hearing of the Rhode Island House Finance Committee on bill H6131 (video here, at time marker 41:30 ), with elaboration during my appearance on the Dan Yorke Show the next day (audio here).

At its core, the principle of using tax dollars for education — the good that we hope to achieve — isn’t to support a school system that is branded with the Rhode Island government brand. It’s to have an educated public.  It’s to do what we can to ensure that every child has the basic knowledge necessary to be economically productive and civilly engaged, allowing each to achieve his or her full academic potential, given individual aptitude and circumstances.

This is a critical distinction. If the purpose of collecting tax dollars is to fund an organization operated by government agents, then the objective is to get those schools to serve as large and broad a student population as possible and to give them as much money as they need (or say that they need) to provide a serviceable education. If the purpose of collecting tax dollars is to fund the education of every child, then the objective is to fund the most academically effective, financially efficient schools serving the particular students who attend them, no matter who operates them.

The only reason to emphasize “public schools” over “education of the public” is to maintain some sort of nominal (probably theoretical and definitely debatable) control over how those schools operate and what they teach. Two points speak against that reasoning.

First, as we’re seeing with all of the battles over accountability — standardized testing, teacher performance reviews, and so on — it isn’t at all clear that we, the public, have any real control over this system. And the government’s solution appears to be to keep moving authority farther and farther away from the families with the most invested in the schools and toward higher tiers of government, where abstract theory and political interests prevail.

Second, beginning with the premise that government-run schools should be arranged to suit the needs of every student who could conceivably enter their halls, while balancing the civic and ideological preferences of taxpayers, can’t help but sublimate the primary and essential goal of educating people.  Children have different needs — within and beyond learning styles. As important, our democratic means of controlling a government-school system are muddied with an ever-expanding list of other things we want government to do.  When we vote for a governor, for example, we’re not just basing our choice on his or her likely appointees in the education system, but weighting that against every single other policy and project that he or she is likely to undertake.

There can be no doubt that we need a sort of a default system funded through tax dollars, but how we fund and populate those default schools doesn’t have to be the unaccountable system that we’ve all become used to.

At the hearing, lobbyist James Parisi, from the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals union, noted that the state’s government-run schools are facing budget crunches and eliminating programs — charging for sports, looking for ways to increase fees, and all that. Under no analysis can the problem be said to be a reduction of funding.  One can also not say that there has been a huge wave of new students.

The money crunch is a function of the way the government structures its workforce and operations.  That means the unions. That means the state and federal mandates that suit the priorities of elected (and unelected) government officials.

Such a system is fine, as an operational experiment, but it simply can’t be the one model that must survive as a monopoly without competition.  If we think of the undiluted good of education as education, we must allow differences and competition not just from school to school within a government system, but from the entire way the government operates its schools.

One can always argue that parents who make enough extra effort in the government schools at least have a chance to make up for the ways in which the organizations don’t answer the needs of their children.  But that’s a bit like saying that people who want to protect their cars from potholes can drive at half the speed limit, or that businesses can still navigate the labyrinth of regulations if they just give up more of their free time.

That shouldn’t be the standard.  Instead, parents who want to be involved should be enhancing their children’s lives beyond the basics.  And by the same token, children whose parents can’t or won’t be as involved shouldn’t be condemned to a system that assumes that they will be.

The right question is how we, as a society, marshal our resources to create the best incentives for students, parents, teachers, and communities — in and out of government.

  • Warrington Faust

    Justin, do you know anywhere I can see a good comparison between our public schools and the schools in other "first world" countries. As with everyone, I constantly hear of superior education in Japan and the Far East. I am not of the impression that it is "funding" that does it.

    • justinkatz


      I don't have a good source for that at my fingertips. I do know the George W. Bush library has a Global Report Card that shows U.S. districts against the global stage, but I don't think it compares with specific foreign systems.

  • msteven

    For me, part of the problem is attempt to ‘quantify’ or compare schools.
    Consider what is being compared, the test scores of the students? The graduation rates? What makes one school ‘better’ than another? I don’t believe there can be a fair analysis unless the same exact students were used as variables in two different countries.

    I do agree that there should more choices when it comes to education but it’s not like choice does not exist. Parents can send their kids to private schools or home school.

    But schools cannot be solely judged by the test scores of their students. That is akin to judging Presidents by the economy or hospitals by a mortality rate. It happens but has not accurate basis.

    I suspect the difference are due to family involvement and yes, the “me” culture. I agree that the unions are a detriment to the educational system but privatizing the educational system would just encourage special treatment – bottom line is that money & power corrupts.

    I remember when job of the teachers/principals/administrators were to provide an opportunity to receive an education. No more. No less. And it wasn’t about the funding.

  • justinkatz


    In a system of total school choice, we don't have to judge schools by their test scores; parents will be able to take into account the totality of the school and its offerings. The accountability is that they continue to use that school.

    Of course, I suspect we'll find that some ranges are best served by a rigid testing system, to discover information about the schools as well as the families, but it wouldn't have to be the model for the entire system. That more and more people are inclined to apply testing standards to the entire system is ultimately an admission that the things we thought would create accountability (mostly democratic action) are failing.

    As to your allusion to the current existence of choice, I'd suggest that we'd get a better overall education system, and better serve just about every child and family, if household income weren't the primary variable in imposing competition among schools.

    • msteven

      I didn't mean to say that I don't agree with testing. I do. Testing should continue to be the criteria as to how students are graded. I just don't hapen to agree with judging either teachers or school systems by the results of standardized tests. I'll go so far as to say it's silly. But it's also the reality – grades or ratings are now put to everything – doctors, cities, school systems.

      I also think the word 'accountability' is overused. It's become totally politicized. We'd have a better educational system if the teachers were not held 'accountable' for the test scores of teir students. Just as we'd have a better health care system if the care providers weren't held 'accountable' for the health of their patients. Of course, dr's get paid extra by the govt for elling their patients to stop smoking.

  • Warrington Faust

    Private schools are not a panacea. I went to one after the 8th grade and think well of it. My daughter went to one, In Cambridge, and it made me crazy. The kids were warned not eat at McDonald's because MickyD was destroying the "rain forest" (remember the "rain forest" crisis?). My crisis was reached when they announced at parent's meeting that they were dropping "3 units" (what is a "unit") of American history to add 3 "units" of African history. The Cantabridgians applauded, another father and I asked why. We were told that "if students were not supported at home, their grades might be degraded". I think it became a "neighborhood school" and Cambridge is not my sort of neighborhood.

    Still, I approve of private schools as competition for the public system.

    • msteven

      Thanks Warrington, I believe your experience is not unique. Teaching at a private college, I had the experience of a being told to 'pass' a failing student because of parental comments. But still,. I believe in fair competition – and there is a panacea.

      • Warrington Faust

        msteven – My position was somewhat opposite of yours. We were being threatened with bad grades for our klds if we objected to "policy".

        • msteven

          That's interesting – I had not heard that experience in the public system. Not because there aren't people like that in 'public' schools but it would be more difficult to get away with that in a public school.

          Anyways, we both believe in private schools as competition for public schools. Maybe we disagree that we should totally privatize education – I don't think that would 'improve' our education system.

  • Warrington Faust

    I have to throw this one in. At an "oldies" party for the kids, they were not allowed to use music by black artists. This would be "robbing Black Culture to entertain white people".

  • msteven

    That's great. I'll have to remember to use that one.

  • Warrington Faust

    If you liked that one, try this one. For LGBT Week (or whatever the event) the school had a poster in the lobby showing a semi-adult woman reclining in her underwear with two teenage girls rolling down her nylons. The Head of School (Headmaster is sexist) received "110% support" after his conviction for concealing sexual abuse by a coach. The following year he retired, to "spend more time with his family", I assume. It is to their shame that he was not fired, tweed coat, pipe, and all. That same year there was an attempt to open a Charter School for black kids in Cambridge. Even Alan Dershowitz signed a petition against it, "high volume of traffic" don'tcha know.

    If there is any doubt about this, check it out. It was the Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School (BB&N) in Cambridge, MA. About 15 years ago.