Karen de Coster on Matt Yglesias on Public School Funding…

Hmm..some flying fur:

Matt Yglesias has a blog post called “School for Rich Kids Isn’t Charity” to which Karen de Coster administers several unkindest cuts.

The gist of Yglesias’ argument is that private school tuition money should be taxed because it’s money that really ought to be going to public schools, if those varmint parents only knew their duty to the state.

Well, first, as Ms. de Coster points out, those private school parents (and everyone else) are already paying for public schools through property taxes. So what Yglesias is asking for is a punitive second tax, for the sin of opting out (with your own money) of the free goodies the state wants you to have to make you yet another dependent. A dependent who will then be a reliable vote for expansion of the state.

Ms. de Coster is a CPA who’s probably (?) never taught in a school, private or public. I have.
[Note: this seems to have come off as a brush-off. It’s not meant to be. Just explaining why I think I have something to add, from anecdotal experience, to a theoretical debate].

So let me toss my two cents in.

From my experience (and it’s not extensive), public schools have problems but they’re not caused by lack of money primarily For my part, I made better money teaching in a public school for troubled inner-city children than I ever did teaching in private schools. There was grant money coming to the school. Whether it was usefully spent or not I don’t know. Everyone worked, but the students came from such difficult backgrounds (routine gun fights in their neighborhood, missing parents, pervasive drug addiction, an AIDS patient in one case, malnourishment, street life with its attractions and traps, it was an uphill and probably futile task. The school folded up in three months when the funds suddenly vanished.

Private school wasn’t always much richer but it was different. One of my first jobs teaching in the US was teaching music at a private boy’s school. It was supposedly part-time but I got into the classroom at 6:30 and left only at 3:00, with my time entirely taken up by classes and prep. I was paid $4000 a semester for that. (Fortunately it was only one of three jobs I held at the time). It was probably the hardest work I ever did. There were between 20-35 rather rambunctious boys between the ages of five and 14 who didn’t take kindly to choral instruction, music theory, or my accent. One asked me with disdain why I didn’t look like Vanna White, his heroine (he was nine). Another was so disruptive I had him stand in the corner, where he created more disruption by announcing sotto voce that the art teacher was being undressed by the geography teacher, and he could see it through a hole in the wall. (There was no hole in the wall. Like Saki’s heroine, he was a specialist in romance at short notice).

He was all of five, had a tow head and a face like a cherub, but it didn’t stop him from calling everyone a “d*** face” whenever he had a chance. I finally had to talk to his mother, who received my complaints frostily. Angel-face had already told her that naughty teacher has used the word “wimp” to his preciousness (I’d jokingly told him not to be a wimp but to come up and join the rest of the band)…. which had left him too shaken, poor darling, to continue.

As for “d*** face,” she was sure he would never use such language, she said, in a tone that let me know she was sure I would…..

What I’m saying is that private school can be as tough and underpaid as any public school. And there can be just as uncooperative parents and difficult children.

Money isn’t the main problem with public schools. The problem in the inner cities is the environment in which the school and the children are forced to function; the administrators who have no conception of what’s needed; and a culture that doesn’t support learning.

My high school in India was half-built and lacked running water in one of the labs. I remember sitting on sand in one class. We had no xerox machines, no computers, no type-writers or calculators in the class. There was a broken-down piano (an enormous luxury in India), old books sent to us from America for the library. We loved them for the glossy pictures, lively text and smooth pages. Our own Indian text-books were printed smudgily on cheap paper, rarely had pictures, and tended to be litanies of facts. It was in those old discarded text books that I first read about Robert Fulton and the steam ship and the duel between Burr and Hamilton. It didn’t make a difference that I read it leaning against an old pile of bricks, doodling in the sand, while a nineteen-year old, in a green sari and a huge rose in her bun, sang out the endless details of the Tree-tee of Ver-sigh-liz, while the boys tried to catch her eye.

It didn’t make a difference to our education because there was a culture of learning. The students came from households that were often struggling to pay the bills, for whom uniforms and books and lunch boxes on small middle-class Indian salaries was an enormous sacrifice. But those households placed an extremely high value on learning and accomplishment. They were largely professional or academic families. If a teacher scolded or punished us, our parents took the teacher’s side (for the most part). We didn’t have television to distract us. We had structured time to study at home. We had standards demanded from us. We had people who had a firm grasp, if not of their subject, of the role they had to play in the class room.

Matt Yglesias often has interesting things to say. But on this one, Ms. de Coster is right. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Money isn’t the central problem in public schools. I doubt that it’s even really a major problem.