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September 27, 2010

Zuckerberg's well-meaning mistake

On the "Oprah" show the other day, it was announced that Mark Zuckerberg (the founder of Facebook) is going to spend $100 million to try to improve -- in partnership with Mayor Cory Booker (D) and Gov. Chris Christie (R) -- Newark's really, really bad government schools.

So, on the one hand:  Great.  Booker is a first-rate mayor, and Christie is one of my favorite politicians around.  Hats off to Zuckerberg for his generosity.  This kind of cooperation puts to shame those members of Congress who bray about their desire for "bipartisanship."

On the other hand:  This is a huge waste of money.  The focus should be on the welfare and opportunity of the children in Newark, and not so much on the ability (or not) of the (pathological) government schools to (mis)serve those children.  A scholarship fund for poor kids to attend parochial schools would improve more lives, I suspect.

Posted by Rick Garnett on September 27, 2010 at 04:08 PM | Permalink

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I suppose the proverbial "devil is in the details." Didn't the Gates Foundation set out to vaguely improve our nations public libraries but as I think the implementation goes, the money is harder to get than it seems, thus encouraging betterment and higher standards? So I hear....

Posted by: Alberto Hurtado | Sep 27, 2010 4:27:52 PM

"Government schools"? I think they're called public schools.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Sep 27, 2010 5:05:50 PM

Some years back, I heard Jonathan Kozol speaking to an Atlanta audience about the funding problems facing public schools that serve poor African-American students. Then someone pointed out the public schools in Atlanta were spending significantly more per pupil than schools in the city's more affluent and racially diverse suburbs. He didn't bat an eye, waving away the notion that something else besides money might account for the massive difference in student achievement.

Since the days of the Moynihan Report, it has been taboo for intellectuals even to allude to the possibility that family and community factors are decisive in determining how well students perform. But it is obviously so, and nobody has discovered any way around it. In fact, as we know from both common sense and Catholic social teaching, loving two-parent married families are the foundation of a just social order. But I don't think public schools today are even allowed to mention that fact.

Posted by: ron chandonia | Sep 27, 2010 5:29:28 PM

Yes, most people call them public schools, but "government schools" is equally accurate, at a minimum, and perhaps more so. We use the term "public" to refer sometimes to government-run or -owned things, but sometimes to mean merely "open to the public," even if privately-owned (public accommodations, public worship). In Britain, the term "public school" is used to describe what we'd call private schools. (I think that's because they're open to anyone in the public who pays tuition and shows up, as opposed to those living in a defined district, but I'm not sure.)

"Government schools" is a mild term. I prefer "government indoctrination centers."

Posted by: rebel | Sep 27, 2010 5:39:14 PM

As best I understand it, Zuckerberg's $100 million was solicited by Booker and Christie and is being used as a challenge grant to raise an additional $100 million, of which $40 million has been pledged so far, some by Bill Gates. It does not seem that Zuckerberg got an idea out of the blue to donate money to the Newark school system. Rather, it seems that Booker and Christie got together and worked up a plan to raise $200 million for the Newark schools, and Zuckerberg bought into it. According to Wikipedia, Zuckerberg's parents are Jewish, but he is an atheist. I suppose when Booker and Christie came asking for money, Zuckerberg could have said, "No, I have a better idea. I'll spend $100 million sending kids to Catholic (and other parochial) schools." But somehow I don't think that would have been the first thought of a Jewish atheist, nor would it have been the right thing to do. On the one hand, it might be seen as taking a burden off the Newark public schools, but on the other, it might contribute to their demise. The latter seems more likely. Also, do the Newark parochial schools have the capacity to take on more students?

Since nobody knows yet how the money will be spent, I think it's too soon to consider it wasted. Has any other major American city simply thrown up its hands and abandoned public education?

I understand what Ron Chadonia is saying above, but I think there is very little Christie and Booker can do to give all the children of Newark married, loving parents. A school system has to work with the students it has (and their families, however broken or dysfunctional). And if the failure of the Newark schools is the result of the students coming from inadequate backgrounds, I don't see how sending them to parochial schools will help. If they are unteachable, they are unteachable no matter what schools they attend. Why would parochial schools even want them? (I do not agree that any student is unteachable, by the way.)

Posted by: David Nickol | Sep 27, 2010 5:58:58 PM

"The focus should be on the welfare and opportunity of the children in Newark, and not so much on the ability (or not) of the (pathological) government schools to (mis)serve those children."

I assume "pathological" is referring to the specific government schools in Newark, not government schools categorically?

Second, I support school choice, but I also support efforts to assist public schools. Like it or not, the parochial schools in Newark cannot handle the task of educating all the children in Newark, and if they could, they would probably have run into some of the same problems afflicting the public schools currently. Supporting school choice should not lead to washing our hands of the public school mess (and we should be careful about overstating the degree of that mess and/or the culpability of those who bear some responsibility for the mess). Increased funding is not always the answer, obviously, but sometimes it helps, especially if it's spent wisely.

Posted by: rob vischer | Sep 27, 2010 6:46:33 PM

Sean S.: I am aware, of course, of the longstanding convention of referring to government-run schools as "public schools." In my view, "government" is at least accurate, and probably more so. The use of the term "public" schools is, it seems to me, at least in part a rhetorical and ideological practice, one that works (by design) to suggest that what happens in Catholic, other religious, and private schools is somehow (merely) "private". In fact, these latter schools serve the public, and educate the public, and usually do so more successfully than do the government's own schools.

David, no one has suggested (I didn't) that any city "throw[] up its hands and abandon public education." I did suggest, though, that -- in the end -- Zuckerberg's money-spending choice will yield less benefit than another choice could have. Don't get me wrong -- I think Cory Booker is an urban-policy hero, and if anyone can turn Newark's schoools around, it is probably him (along with the Governor). But, again, "deciding not to spend additional funds on failing government-run schools and deciding instead to spend money on charter schools and school choice" is not "abandon[ing] public education." We have to get away from the notion that "public education" is "education in schools operated by the government" and is instead "education of the public, at public expense".

Rob, I used "pathological", in my post, to refer to Newark's schools, but the term applies broadly. And, I will say -- I gather you disagree -- that, in places like Newark, it is difficult to "overstat[e]" the degree of the mess. I also believe that, for the most part, our public-education regime (in cities, anyway) is "pathological", as a general matter. We spend too much, for too little; the system is controlled by and for the benefit of teacher-union members and administrators, not by the public or for the benefit of the children who attend the schools; the content of what is taught is unimpressive; parents who send their children to religious schools are forced to pay twice (even though what they are "buying" from these religious schools is a "public" good no less than is what the public schools are selling); and too many children are trapped in failing schools -- schools that are failing *not* because they lack money -- and would love to attend better, often religious schools, but cannot. The recent election in D.C. -- which will likely result in the ouster of a visionary public-school reformer and which was engineered by disgrunted educrats -- should be a wake-up call.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 28, 2010 9:05:06 AM

Rick, those are all fair points. I agree that big-city public schools have more than their share of problems (I send my children to one). But many good things happen there, and those schools need our support -- not necessarily support for the status quo, but support nevertheless. I am wary of a tendency to fall into the "Catholic schools do no wrong!" and "Public schools do no right!" rhetoric. Sometimes unions are a problem, sometimes lack of funding is a problem. I would not dismiss a generous donation as a waste of money -- let's see how it gets spent.

Posted by: rob vischer | Sep 28, 2010 10:37:32 AM

On the glimmers of hope that exist even for large, unionized public schools, see, e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/education/28school.html?hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1285686063-t5DbLRLtp8791UL4eFR5yw

Posted by: rob vischer | Sep 28, 2010 11:03:25 AM

"parents who send their children to religious schools are forced to pay twice"

Since I do not have any children, I guess I am "forced to pay" once.

Posted by: David Nickol | Sep 28, 2010 11:08:31 AM

David, I believe that the education of the public is a public responsibility -- a common one. One has to chip in whether or not one has kids, just as one has to chip in for the roads, whether or not one drives, and for the public defender whether or not one is accused of a crime. But, the money that I spend to send my kids to Catholic schools is, in fact, going to the *public* good, and it should "count" toward my "chipping in" obligation.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 28, 2010 11:12:03 AM

Rob, I don't know anyone who thinks (certainly, I don't) that "public schools can do no right" or that "Catholic schools can do no wrong." But, the occasional sunny story about a courageous public-school teacher or non-dysfunctional public-school-district does not, in my mind, cure the serious injustices that, it seems to me, run throughout the entire system. What we are doing now is unjust and immoral, and Christians should not be afraid to say so.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 28, 2010 11:13:47 AM

We may not disagree on any of this, Rick, apart from whether the donation can be considered a waste of money at this stage. I think the lack of real school choice is unjust and immoral, but I would not affix those labels (and I don't think you would either) to the state of urban public schools categorically. I donate money (on top of my tax contribution) to my public school, and because I know how it's being spent, I'm confident that it wouldn't be any better (or worse) spent by my local Catholic school. (I'm putting aside the question whether Catholics owe a different sort of obligation to Catholic schools than to public schools; I'm just focused on whether public schools can still be a worthy object of our stewardship.)

Posted by: rob vischer | Sep 28, 2010 12:02:21 PM

Rick,

I agree that education is a public responsibility, but that is why we have public schools, which I am happy to pay for through my taxes. If I have a nice back yard and let the neighborhood kids play in it, does that mean I shouldn't pay to support public parks? If I belong to a gym that has a swimming pool, does that mean that my tax dollars shouldn't go for municipal pools? I really don't see why taxpayers should pay for Catholic (or other religious) schools, particularly if Catholic schools do not allow non-Catholics to attend, or allow them to attend only after all applying Catholics have been accommodated. (You never addressed the question of whether Newark's parochial schools could accommodate $100 million worth of scholarship students.)

I do think it is unfortunate what has happened to Catholic education. My old parish grade school no longer exists, and students from that parish now share a school with two other parishes. My Christian Brothers high school is now in the "Christian Brothers tradition" and has no Christian Brothers teaching there. But the decline in Catholic schools and the great expense for parents who want to give their children a Catholic education are almost entirely attributable to developments within the Catholic Church itself. I don't see why taxpayers should have to pay to remedy those problems. (And particularly if the Archbishop Chaputs within the Church are going to boot out students because their parents are same-sex couples.)

Posted by: David Nickol | Sep 28, 2010 12:16:18 PM

David, your park analogy does not work, in my view. Mine is not a "I should only have to pay for my kids' education" claim. I am happy to say that people who contribute scholarship funds for kids in parochial schools should be allowed to "count" those donations to their "chip in" obligations, too. My point is that it is the "education of the public" that is the public responsibility, and not the maintenance of one particular means (and not a very effective one, in too many instances) of educating the public. I see no reason why it should matter, for public-funding purposes, whether the kids attending the school are Catholic or not -- the schools are providing a public good, to the public (the public benefits from educated kids), and there is no reason why the public should not help to pay for this good.

I didn't address lots of things, so I'm not sure why you think it's relevant that I didn't get into the ability of Newark's parochial schools to accommodate $100 million of scholarship students. I assume they couldn't (though, I don't know. Perhaps an endowed scholarship for all low-income kids to attend the qualifying parochial or other private school of their choice in Newark and the surrounding areas would cost about $100 million, over the long haul. In any event, I have no objection to including Camden and Jersey City in the plan.)

Your statement about the cause of the decline in Catholic schools being "almost entirely attributable to developments within the Catholic Church" is, I think, not quite right. Yes, intra-Church developments are a big part of the story. But, a big part of the story is also the Court's obstructionism, for much of the last 40 years, of legislative efforts to treat Catholic schools and the kids to attend them fairly.

The Chaput bit is also, I think, irrelevant. That Catholic schools do not accept everyone does not mean they do not provide a public good, for which the public should, in justice, pay. (Whether the Chaput decision was correct is another matter.)

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 28, 2010 12:23:59 PM

What are the boundaries of the idea that the public should be obligated to pay for the non-state provision of goods that benefit the public? (Private security/police forces, say?) In education, for example, would that apply to post-secondary education?

Posted by: Mark | Sep 28, 2010 12:53:27 PM

Mark, yours is a very good, important, and hard question. I'm not sure, exactly, where the boundaries would be (there would, of course, be some). I would not put the matter in terms of "pay for non-state provision of goods that benefit the public", though. "Education of children", it seems to me, is a good that does not merely happen to benefit the public. It is, instead, an essential dimension of the entire enterprise of *being* a "public", a political community. The particular good we are talking about -- i.e., the education and formation of children by Catholic schools -- is, I am assuming (and our positive law concedes as much, I suppose, since attendance at qualifying Catholic schools "counts" for compulsory-attendance purposes), the *same* good -- the exact good -- that the political community has an interest in providing through the schools that it operates directly. Finally, it seems to me that education (unlike, say, national defense) is a public good that can easily be provided pluralistically.

What do you think?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 28, 2010 1:37:48 PM

Isn't there a tension between saying that providing for education of children is an essential dimension of being a political community, and advocating for the distinctiveness, the distinctively _Catholic_ character, of parochial education? Can something be said to be a project of the political community when much of the political community is by design excluded from a voice in or control over that project, and rightly so? (One might also see a similar potential tension between seeking to maintain parochial school autonomy to hire for a Catholic mission and seeking to expand the purview of parochial education to the education of many, or even mostly, non-Catholic children).

Following on that point, I'm not sure I agree that education and formation of children by Catholic schools _is_ the exact same good as education provided directly by the political community; that it is of sufficient quality, and sufficiently close in kind, to satisfy the minimum educational requirements that the political community deems necessary does not make it interchangeable, no? That would seem to me, in fact, to concede what you presumably take to be the particular virtues of Catholic education.

Finally, I would contest the idea that, in economic terms, education is a public good; admittedly depending on the means of provision, is it not both rival and excludable? (Your exchange above with David goes to the latter point, for example).

Posted by: Mark | Sep 28, 2010 2:12:59 PM

Mark, there *can* be, but need not be, such a tension. That is, it can be true both that the education and formation that takes place in a Catholic school is distinctively, pervasively, and authentically Catholic *and* that the education and formation that takes place in a Catholic schools also does what we, as members of a political community, (should) want education to do (form competent, other-regarding, curious, engaged participant-members of that community). So, I'm not saying that what happens in a Catholic school is, or should be, the same as what happens (or, should happen) in a government-run school. But, I am saying that it does what we (should) want public education to do (and then some).

I'm not (and have not been) using "public good" in the technical way you mention (i.e., as being, by definition, non-rivalrous and non-excludable.) It's not clear to me that there are many such goods, but that's another point.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 28, 2010 2:19:16 PM

Mark & Rick, I'm pretty sure that in public-choice economics term, education is not a public good in the formal sense, as it fails the non-rival/non-excludable test. However, many claim that education, especially K-12, has a strong externality, and externalities, along with public goods, are candidates for government intervention under standard public-choice analysis.

The externality argument is that education produces benefits to the broader society that wiegh heavily relative to the benefits returned to the student, so the students would under-consume without subsidy. The rest of us should subsidize to bribe them into consumption so that we reap the benefits.

The benefits include, purportedly, producing better citizens as an economic matter -- more productive, less likely to drain public resources, etc. -- and as a civic matter -- better voters, jurors, etc. If the educated are less likely to be criminals, that qualifies as both economic and civic.

Whether these externality arguments hold up is debatable, but either way, they are futher complicated because they are contingent on several other fundamental public policy arguments. Education saves welfare money only if you have a welfare system, for example.

Assuming the externality proponents are right, there is a separate question about whether compulsory education is justified, as opposed to merely subsidizing and making it attractive.

Then there is a separate inquiry as to whether the externality applies to college, for which the societal benefits relative to individual return are a shakier proposition.

The bottom line, though, is that these debates are better cast under the externality framework than under public good analysis. That's actually true of most public-policy issues, but the term "public good" has leaked into lay usage or policy usage more so than the term externality. That's probably because it sounds better -- "public good" sounds like anything good for the public, even if that's not what it should mean.

Posted by: some skeptic | Sep 28, 2010 2:54:41 PM

Mark says: "I'm not sure I agree that education and formation of children by Catholic schools _is_ the exact same good as education provided directly by the political community . . . "

Rick,

I agree with what Mark said, although my reasons may be very different from his. This is not the 1950s and 1960s. There is a lot of political push coming from the Catholic Church on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, and emergency contraception. Those who are pro-choice may not be willing to foot the bill for a Catholic education that aims to turn out pro-life activists. Those who support gay rights may not be willing have their money go to a school system that teaches not only that gay people should not get married, but that they are "disordered" and commit acts of "grave depravity" -- hence the reference to Archbishop Chaput. Do I, as a taxpayer, want to help pay for students to attend schools that exclude perfectly innocent children because their parents are lesbians? And of course if we take the attitude you suggest toward public funds for students of other religions, what if there are Muslim schools that are academically excellent but politically iffy?

The Catholic Church I remember as a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s was apolitical to the point where I think some of us thought they didn't do enough for causes like civil rights. But now several of the really hot-button issues are ones where the Church's position makes it controversial. I certainly don't remember the US bishops negotiating with congress on major legislation during the 1950s and 1960s or being a major force in attempting to overturn any Supreme Court decisions.

Posted by: David Nickol | Sep 28, 2010 3:07:41 PM

David, I used the word "should" often, in my comments above, because I am sure you are right that, in fact, many people imagine that what Catholic schools are doing is cranking out "pro-life activists" and imagine further that there is something un-attractive or frightening about this possibility (as if the government's schools do not aim to crank out activists of their own).

I cannot speak to the Catholic Church you remember in the 1950s and 1960s, but I am pretty sure that it was not, in fact, the case that the Church was apathetic or indifferent when it came to civil rights. The suggestion that the bishops were not actively involved in political questions -- including civil-rights questions -- in the 1950s and 1960s is mistaken.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 28, 2010 3:11:53 PM

The suggestion that the bishops were not actively involved in political questions -- including civil-rights questions -- in the 1950s and 1960s is mistaken.

Rick,

I remember no election novenas, no postcard campaigns, no "Faithful Citizenship," no bishops negotiating with congress on major legislation, no advocacy for having any Supreme Court decisions overturned, no instructions about voting in terms of remote material cooperation and proportionate reason. If the Catholic Church had been as politically engaged then as it is now, I don't think JFK would have been able to allay the fears of voters and get elected. And now it is being argued that that his speech that put those fears to rest was “sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong.” My Catholic education, particularly in grade school, was equal parts Catholicism and American exceptionalism. The Pledge of Allegiance always accompanied morning prayers, and no one ever suggested that the government might be wrong about anything -- let alone interpreting the constitution.

One figure who is usually brought up as a significant figure in discussions of the Church and civil rights is Archbishop Rummel (because he excommunicated three segregationists who were working against him), but he didn't integrate the New Orleans Catholic schools until 1962, two years after the public schools, which had been fighting integration tooth and nail since Brown v Board of Education.

You may think of those who object to Church teachings on abortion, gay rights, and the other issues I mentioned as anti-Catholic, but that doesn't mean they don't exist or wouldn't be unhappy about subsidizing Catholic education.

Posted by: David Nickol | Sep 28, 2010 7:34:42 PM

David, I did not deny that people who object to Church teachings "exist" or that they would be "unhappy about subsidizing Catholic education." I am saying, though, that -- the existence and unhappiness of these persons (who may or may not be anti-Catholic) notwithstanding -- we ought to recognize that Catholic schools (and the parents who pay tuition to them) contribute to "public education" (i.e., the "education" of the public) and so deserve support from public funds.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 29, 2010 1:36:32 PM

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