A Jonathan Alter-cation: Teacher pay-for-performance? How about the same for pundits?

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter likes charter schools, and often enough writes about them and his frustration that public schools and their teachers won’t roll over and play dead while charter schools steal money from them (my characterization, not Alter’s).

At Public School Insights, Claus von Zastrow suggested that maybe pundits like Alter ought to be subject to having their pay docked when they screw up, too.  Then he went further, and specifically criticized a recent Alter column, point for point.

A few comments down, who should show up to make his case, but Jonathan Alter.

Go watch, and learn.  Among other things, the discussion is much more civil than we usually see on blogs.  It’s a lesson for Christians and creationists especially.

It’s not much of a conflict of interest, but I have dealt with Alter before, in his previous job at The New Republic (back when it was not so much a bastion of neo-conservatism).  Alter did a major profile of Sen. Orrin Hatch.  Alter strove not to be flattering, and the biggest problem was the Vint Lawrence illustration, showing Hatch draped in the American flag as a cloak.  As I recall from those now-dusty decades, the profile wasn’t exactly correlated with the illustration on any issue.  Over the years, Alter’s been closer to correct more often than he’s been wrong, in my view — his views on charter schools being in that area where I think he errs.

Public schools have never suffered from a surplus of money.  Charter school advocates should not be allowed to steal income from public schools directly.  To shore up GM, we don’t allow GM to take a share of profit from Ford for every GM car sold.  Nor do we allow Ford to take a share of GM’s income.  Competition in education is a foolish pursuit most often, but we don’t need a competitive model that bleeds education on either end, as Alter’s advocacy favors.

In hard economic terms, free market, gloves-off, bare-fisted capitalistic competition has never been shown to work in education.  I never could figure out Milton Friedman’s advocacy for such competition since there is no case ever to be made that competition makes better schools, nor that privately-run schools work better for educating an entire nation than public schools.  I think all relevant evidence runs the other way.

Pay for performance, but links for free:

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12 Responses to A Jonathan Alter-cation: Teacher pay-for-performance? How about the same for pundits?

  1. Nick Kelsier says:

    Jason, I suggest you read the following. It’s an example of how “well” running schools like businesses works. Oh and my state is the one that invented the idea of charter schools.


    Junk bonds fuel a building spree, but schools are more crowded, insiders are taking fees, and state regulators can’t do much about it.

    By TONY KENNEDY, Star Tribune
    Last update: November 29, 2009 – 3:09 PM
    Minnesota’s charter school movement, which sparked a national rethinking of public schooling nearly two decades ago, has been infected by an out-of-control financing system fueled by junk bonds, insider fees and lax oversight.

    State law prohibits charter schools from owning property, but consultants have found a legal loophole, allowing proponents to use millions of dollars in public money to build schools even though the properties remain in the hands of private nonprofit corporations.

    The key to making it all work is the state’s lease aid program, which was created 11 years ago to help spur competition in public education by offering rental assistance to groups promoting alternatives to district schools. In the beginning, many charters were located in dumpy strip malls and received no real-estate grants.

    But the once-obscure program has snowballed into one of the fastest growing expenses in the state, with building projects receiving little of the vetting that typically accompanies other public works. One school project was being led by a convicted sex offender until this month, when the Star Tribune exposed his past.

    In the past decade, 18 charter schools have been built with $178 million in junk bonds, with financing costs on some projects chewing up nearly a quarter of the funds raised. Twelve more charter schools have taken steps to buy or build facilities, and the state projects annual spending on lease aid to reach $54 million in 2013, up from just $1.1 million in 1998.


  2. Nick Kelsier says:

    Oh I did forget one other argument against your idea, Jason.

    The fact that it is unconstitutional for the government to to give funds to private schools. Why? Because 99% of private schools in this country are…wait for it…religious. You do remember the 1st Admendment right? The one that sets up a separation of church and state right? You do remember it? Or are you going to conveniently pretend that it doesn’t exist? You also going to conveniently pretend that the religious right in this country wouldn’t throw a huge hissy fit the second government funding went to a school belonging to a religion they don’t like? Do you really want to pretend that they wouldn’t use such funding to prosetylize and try to gain the funding only for themselves?

    Furthermore my state, Minnesota, has a specific clause in it’s state constitution that forbids state funding from going to “sectarian purposes.”

    Minnesota Constitution, Article 13:
    Section 1. Uniform system of public schools. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.

    Sec. 2. Prohibition as to aiding sectarian school. In no case shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught.

    Sorry, Jason, I will not have my tax money going to pay for your kids private school. Even if we do happen to be the same religion. Hell I won’t pay my taxes for it even if we were the same denomination of said religion. You want to send your kids to a private school? Then it’s your responsibility to pay for it, not mine. Nor will I have my tax money going to any home school. My responsibility on the subject of education, when it comes to financing, is to pay taxes for the public schools. The private schools…the home schools are on their own.

    If there is one true piece of wisdom that this country has ever produced it is the separation of church and state. Or as said best by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1890:

    “There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.” Weiss v. District Board, March 18 1890.

    Sorry, the last time religon and the public schools mixed in this country 20 people died and 2 churches were burned to the ground. I see no reason to repeat that mistake.


  3. Nick Kelsier says:

    Then quit treating our children as if they are things sold in Walmart, Jason. None of what you said would improve the public schools one bit. And you are still conveniently ignoring these two facts:

    1: There are not enough private schools to make up the difference from public schools.

    2: Private schools don’t operate by the same rules as public schools and therefor any comparison between the two is false from the start.

    My local public school is one of the best in my state, Jason. And it isn’t because of any supposed “competition” with the local private school.


  4. Nick, I’m concerned to see such a strident response. I would hope everyone could agree that we all share a desire to see the effective use of resources in educating children, and are willing to have a respectful, healthy debate if we disagree as to how to spend those resources. I respect your right to an opinion, and have no reason to think that you are pretending or are delusional. I would hope that you could do the same for me.


  5. Nick Kelsier says:

    No, Jason, what is driving up health care costs isn’t massive government intervention. What is driving up health care costs is the health insurance companies. If what you claimed was really the case, Jason, then all the countries with government run health care would have higher costs then we do..and oops they don’t. In fact..none of them have higher costs then we do.

    As for “anti-capitalist” instinct what anti-capitalist instinct? Where is it said, Jason, that capitalism is the answer to everything? Or have you conveniently forgotten that capitalism gave us Enron, Bernie Madoff, Tom Petters and other out of control sharks? Recognizing that capitalism isn’t the answer for every problem, Jason, isn’t “anti-capitalism” it’s recognizing that capitalism has it’s limits. You can sit there and pretend that capitalism is a panacea to everything all you want but that’s a irrational expectation.

    And you can sit there and pretend that public schools and private schools are in competition with each other but they’re not. They don’t operate by the same rules. And you can sit there and pretend that taking money from the public schools will somehow make them better but it won’t. It will only make them worse. There simply aren’t enough private schools in the country to even come close to replacing the public schools. You will do the most good if you concentrate on actually helping the public schools instead of trying a bandaid solution. And quit deluding yourself that public schools don’t have competition. First off, little one, there is other public schools. Secondly there’s charter and private schools. and then there is home schooling. People already have choice. So pray tell what are you really after?

    As I said before it’s real easy to pretend that private schools are better then public schools but that’s only because private schools can get rid of the students that fail. Public schools can’t.

    Oh and by the way on the capitalism front let me point this fact out for you. Since the 1980’s the average wage earners salary has remained flat. The average executive salary has skyrocketed to the point now that the richest 1% of the country controls 2/3rds of the wealth in this country. You can sit there and pretend that there is nothing wrong with capitalism, that it can fix everything..that it solves every problem..that it doesn’t cause problems all you want Jason….but you are sadly deluding yourself. Sorry, I am not willing to turn my kids or anyone elses kids into commoditys and that’s all you’re doing.


  6. Wow, lots of good points to discuss here. Before I dive into my responses, which are of course going to be in disagreement, I would like to note that I very much enjoy the general level of civil discourse on this blog (which is why I’ve been a long time reader, and now a second time commenter).

    First off, I definitely agree that public schools are a big part of what made America great over the course of the 20th century. But for a good deal of that time, many public schools were well run financially. Today, we have a massive amount of money going into compensation, especially to non-teachers, with very little payoff. In the school district I live in, we have over 14 non-teachers making six figure salaries. We also have a great deal of money wasted on facilities. For instance, our school district just spent over 35 million dollars building a new school, and is still debating what to do with it! All attempts to cut the construction budget through use of modern building techniques such as modular construction were brushed aside. Due to this kind of runaway spending, our town increased property taxes this year, in the midst of a terrible recession, and even though we already pay some of the highest real estate taxes in the country (e.g., my property taxes have increased by 90% in the last 3 years, 67% of those taxes go to the school budget).

    What do we get for all this? Only the 85th best school system in the state. And our school system is heavenly compared to other area schools, such as Orange. Kids in these school districts have had terrible educations for decades with hardly any improvement. What should we say to parents and students in these towns? Just keep sending your kids to these terribly run schools? How will they ever change as long as they are insulated monopolies with no competitor to force them to improve their performance? And it is definitely not an issue of money, as we are under a state supreme court mandate and have poured millions into these poorer districts without much gain. Camden, NJ spends, last I checked, almost double per student what Cherry Hill, NJ spends. And there is probably not a parent in NJ who would send their kid to Camden instead of Cherry Hill.

    As to references to the past when America had private education and it did a poor job, I would be the first to agree. However, that was a long, long time ago. This is a very different time, and we have very different standards that would apply. As such, I don’t think it’s a fair comparison to refer to pre-World War 1 America. I also don’t think it’s fair to ask for data as to where did a competitive school education environment work, as I’m not aware of one being tried on a comprehensive basis. When I see statements such as this one above, “And the health care industry is supposedly in competition with each other, Jason. Has that improved health care in this country?” I begin to wonder if we are talking past each other. The health care industry is not sufficiently competitive. It is horrifically uncompetitive, with massive government intervention in the health care economy driving the cost of health care up for everyone. Our system is way more problematic than single payer health care system, which would at least ostensibly bargain on drug prices, as opposed to America, where our government cuts deals with big pharma to not negotiate massive bulk pricing discounts that are common across Europe.

    Regarding the statement above “people who have never taught believe that schools should be businesses and children regarded as commodities” well, that seems to reflect a knee jerk dislike of capitalism. The truth of the matter is that economic analysis does fully apply to education, the rules of economics are not suspended when it comes to educating children, and we need to consider the role of competition, which segues nicely to the charter schools issue. Some charter schools, to be frank, are terrible. Some are excellent. But almost everywhere, the average middle class parent has very few options. For competition to work in an economy it needs to be vigorous, and just a few choices is often ineffective. Look at telecommunications. There are hardly any choices, and as a result, the entire industry underperforms and almost everyone dislikes their cable/satellite/phone company. As to the statement, “Teaching should be left to the professionals, and business people should go back to ruining the economy” – again I would object to the anti-capitalism instinct, but I would also agree that teaching should be left to the professionals. I would like to see a wide range of school options, with schools of many different sizes, in many different facilities, with multiple learning approaches that can best match a given student’s learning style, run by teachers who both administer and teach, and keep a close eye on balancing revenues with expenditures. This kind of approach would increase teacher compensation by removing boondoggle expenses on non-teacher compensation and unnecessary facilities, increase teacher freedom and experimentation, and attract better quality performers into the profession, which, let’s face it, is not the go-to job choice of our top undergraduate students.

    What if you were faced with some awful legal situation, such as the death penalty, or the termination of your parental rights? Would you be fine with a government attorney, such as a public defender, or would you instead do everything in your power to hire a product of capitalistic competition, i.e., an outstanding private defense attorney? I think the analogy applies to another kind of service: education. And, because there is so much wasted expenditure to drive out of the existing system, I really believe that we could increase teacher compensation while making schools more affordable for everyone.

    In closing, I point you to the current brouhaha in my town of Montclair, where we’ve had massive fights and multiple student arrests the last few days, and the school superintendent has taken a day off while the principals refuse to comment on the issue to parents or the local press. Why can they get away with this? Because they are a monopoly.

    I look forward to reading your additional comments, and thank you for taking the time to consider mine.


  7. Claus says:


    I would take issue with your arguments that choice itself–and, by extension, competition–improves the performance of public schools. Even die-hard choice advocates like Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Foundation and Sol Stern, who is more strident than Petrilli, have conceded that competition does not work. Charters have been around for a good long while, and not a shred of evidence supports the competition argument, which Petrilli and Stern both supported years ago.

    Their argument for charters is more basic and more coherent: Choice is good for its own sake. It will not save the public school system, and the best schools are very difficult to scale up, but good charters still give very motivated parents and students an option. That’s a very different argument from that of charter supporters, like Alter, who imply that charters present THE answer to our big public school challenges.


  8. Nick Kelsier says:

    Because, Jason, you don’t have competition when one “company” is operating by a far stricter set of standards then the other.

    It’s real easy for a private school to make itself look good.

    After all..they get to pick and choose who they take.

    And the health care industry is supposedly in competition with each other, Jason. Has that improved health care in this country?


  9. There are exceptions to the charter school performance issue, such as the school that my son goes to; and that is because it works in close cooperation with both the St. Paul Public Schools, and shares resources with Hamline University in Minnesota. The trap in charter schools is that they have reduced accountability, because they take money otherwise allocated to the public schools but have reduced oversight responsibility. Some schools with loft stated goals (and promises of military academy style discipline) turned into money pits because they were so poorly managed.

    Dallas’ (and St. Paul’s) magnet system with oversight, but modified focus, provided my older daughter with unique educational experiences but maintained the oversight that the taxpayers and the public should be able to expect.

    When it comes to public education, society is the customer, not just the parents of the kids, to futher Ed’s point.


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    Can you show us any place that school competition exists, with a history of improving education? Our experience in the U.S. tends to run exactly the opposite way. Few charter schools in the U.S. have been able to dramatically change results, with the exception of the KIPP schools — and here in Dallas, Molina High School has more than equalled KIPP successes, and the public school magnet programs have been ranked #1 and #2 in the nation over the past several years, far better than any charter school record.

    There are lots of good arguments for charter schools. So far, none of them are backed by actual evidence. There is a popular notion that competition improves all things. The reality is that no one has ever done a serious study of competition in primary and secondary education to provide data or other evidence of such success. When the U.S. relied on competition between private schools, 80% of the population got no more than a third grade education. Public schooling made America, and made it great. I can’t think of a good reason to fiddle with that success, especially absent a good example opposite.

    All other nations whose students perform better than the U.S., have national education systems. If you want to argue from competitive success, you should prehaps be arguing for a nationalized education system — socialism, to most people. Certainly charter schools can’t offer the record of success Singapore’s schools offer.

    If you have some data on successful competition in education, it would be the first.


  11. Check out the NAEP results. It shows that charter schools have not lived up to their claims and in most instances their students score lower than kids in competing public school systems.

    Charter schools on the whole have been failures. The success stories that supporters use as their proof are far fewer in number than they would have the general public believe, and in terms of fixing the “achievement gap”, charter schools have failed if one is to believe the NAEP.

    The problem gets down to the fact that people who have never taught believe that schools should be businesses and children regarded as commodities. They don’t realize (because they’ve never studied child development) that children ebb and flow throughout their childhood and teenage years in terms of potential and interest. They are people – not widgets.

    The current system is in need of tweaking, but that has always been the case. Educating youngsters is a work in progress sort of thing and needs people who love kids, believe that learning is life-long, and who are able, and free, to experiment and fit the lessons to the kids they have from year to year. Teaching should be left to the professionals, and business people should go back to ruining the economy -which is what they appear to best at.


  12. Could you expand on your feeling that “all relevant evidence runs the other way”? I ask because I felt that Alter had the superior arguments. All of the suggestions Zastrow makes on improving public schools are good ones. But what will motivate people to make these changes? We have so many entrenched, poorly operating school systems and there is no easy way to flip a switch and make the people in these systems improve their performance. Competition for dollars would do that. Also, what makes education unique as compared to all other services in society? Having the government take over all legal services (arguably, in many cases, a service as vital as education) does not inspire confidence. Why should it do so for education? I also don’t think the choice is between the current system and “bare-fisted capitalistic competition” as we are still talking about a world where all schools are subject to standards and oversight. Additionally, I’m surprised to read the statement “public schools have never suffered from a surplus of money.” Here in New Jersey, many of our worse performing schools have huge budgets due to the demands of our state supreme court, yet these financial injections have not improved performance. They have improved the salaries of non-teacher administrators, though.


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