Teachers’ Unions II: Protecting Bad Teachers

One stock conservative talking point is teachers’ unions are a primary cause of educational woes.  If only unions could be eliminated or significantly changed, then education would improve significantly. Those defending unions argue that education would be worse without unions and some contend the effort to eliminate teachers’ unions is part of a plan to transform public education into a for profit-system to benefit a few well-connected elites.

Since the debate is so politically charged, it is difficult to objectively address the issue of whether teachers’ unions harm education or not. However, I will endeavor to address the matter as objectively as possible and acknowledge that as an educator and union member I am biased. As such, my arguments should be reviewed with due caution. Now, to the matter at hand.

One standard criticism of teachers’ unions is that they harm students by protecting bad teachers from being fired. If unions could be changed or eliminated, then bad teachers could be replaced with good teachers and the students would benefit. One variation of this criticism is focused on the practice of last-in first-out: those hired last are the first fired, should firings occurs. The concern is that teachers are retained based on seniority rather than ability, which can result in bad teachers remaining employed and good teachers being fired. Retaining bad teachers and getting rid of good teachers would clearly be bad for the students.

On the face of it, this criticism does match a plausible narrative about unions: since they exist to protect dues paying members, the leadership is not overly concerned about the quality of these members. As such, they do their best to see to it that no one is fired and thus bad teachers remain in the system. These bad teachers, obviously enough, do a bad job at teaching students and this harm can impact them throughout their entire life. Being able to fire these bad teachers would open positions for good teachers. The good teachers would do a good job, thus benefiting the students. From this it follows that eliminating unions would be good for students.

In the case of the policy of firing the last hired, the claim is that eliminating unions would result in merit based hiring and firing, so that when there was a need to fire teachers, the bad teachers would be eliminated regardless of seniority. As such, being rid of unions would improve things for students.

One easy and obvious reply to these criticisms is that they are not criticisms of unions as such. Rather, they are criticisms of specific practices: retaining bad teachers and retaining based on seniority rather than quality. There is nothing essential to a teacher’s union that requires that it mandate the retention of bad teachers nor that it mandate a seniority based retention system. To use an obvious analogy, there are countless examples of bad policies followed by corporations that do not arise simply because a corporation is a corporation. Roughly put, the bad policies are bad not because they are policies of corporations but because they are bad policies. As such, they do not provide grounds for the elimination of corporations. Rather, the badness of a corporation’s policy provides grounds for changing that policy. The same applies to teachers’ unions: the badness of a union policy serves as grounds for changing that policy, not elimination unions.

It could, of course, be argued that by their very nature unions must protect bad teachers and that it is impossible for them to do otherwise. Likewise, it could be argued that corporations by their very nature must have various terrible policies that harm the public. If so, then solving these problems would require eliminating unions and corporations. However, this view seems implausible; although people’s ideologies do often compel them to see things this way.

A second reply to these criticisms involves considering the facts of the matter. If unions protect bad teachers, then highly unionized districts should retain more bad teachers than districts that are less unionized. But, if unions do not protect bad teachers, then districts should have comparable percentages of bad teachers (adjusting for other factors, of course).

As should not be surprising, the debate over this factual matter tends to involves anecdotes about bad teachers and intuitions about unions. While anecdotes can provide some illustrative examples, they do not provide a foundation for general conclusions. There is, after all, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence which involves doing just that. Intuitions can provide some guidance, but by their very nature they are feelings and thoughts one has prior to considering the evidence. As such, anecdotes and intuitions do not suffice to show whether unions are good or bad in regards to the retention of bad teachers.

Fortunately, Professor Eunice Han has conducted a study of the claim that unions overprotect bad teachers. While it runs contrary to the anecdotes about bad teachers that cannot be fired and intuitions about overprotective unions, the evidence shows that “highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.” Somewhat ironically, districts with weak or no unions retain more lower quality teachers than highly unionized districts.

As Han notes, stronger unions reduced the attrition rate of teachers and increase teacher wages. Because of the higher salaries, there is greater incentive to remove bad teachers and good teachers have a greater incentive to remain. This nicely fits the conservative mantra that top talent can only be kept by paying top salaries, although this mantra is usually just applied to people like CEOs and not workers.

In contrast, weak unions (and the absence of unions) increase the attrition rate of teachers and decrease teacher wages. As such, good teachers will tend to leave for areas with strong unions while bad teachers will often end up in areas with weaker unions or those that lack unions. The statistics show that unions have a positive impact on teacher quality and that the myths of the overprotective union and the irremovable bad teacher are just that, myths unsupported by facts. This also nicely matches the conservative mantra about compensation: lesser talent will settle for lower salaries.

It must be noted that since this issue is so ideologically charged, those who oppose unions will tend to regard the study as biased and might offer “alternative facts” of their own on the grounds that what they believe must be true. Likewise, those who favor unions can be accused of accepting “facts” that match their views. This is, of course, a much larger problem than the debate over unions: if there is not a shared set of facts and methods, then no rational discussion is possible. Only the howling of ideological stances driven by desire for profit and power.

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Is Trump’s Presidency Legitimate?

Representative John Lewis, a man who was nearly killed fighting for civil rights, has claimed that Trump is not a legitimate president. While some dismiss this as mere sour grapes, it is certainly an interesting claim and one worth given some consideration.

The easy and obvious legal answer is that Trump’s presidency is legitimate: despite taking a trouncing in the popular vote, Trump won the electoral college. As such, he is the legitimate president by the rules of the system. It does not matter that Trump him denounced the electoral college as “a disaster for democracy”, what matters is the rules of the game. Since the voters have given tacit acceptance of the system by participating and not changing it, the system is legitimate and thus Trump is the legitimate president from this legal standpoint. From a purely practical standpoint, this can be regarded as the only standpoint that matters. However, there are other notions of legitimacy that are distinct from the legal acquisition of power.

In a democratic system of government, one standard of legitimacy is that the majority of the citizens vote for the leader. This can, of course, be amended to a majority vote by the citizens who bother to vote—assuming that voters are not unjustly disenfranchised and that there is not significant voter fraud or election tampering. On this ground, Hillary Clinton is the legitimate president since she received the majority of the votes. This can be countered by arguing that the majority of the citizens, as noted above, accepted the existing electoral system and hence are committed to the results. This does create an interesting debate about whether having the consent of the majority justifies the acceptance of an electoral system that can elect a president who does not win a majority of the votes. As would be suspected, people tend to think this system is just fine when their candidate wins and complain when their candidate loses. But, this is not a principled view of the matter.

Another standard of legitimacy is that the election process is free of fraud and tampering. To the degree the integrity of the electoral system is in question, the legitimacy of the elected president is in doubt. Since the 1990s the Republican party has consistently claimed that voter fraud occurs and is such a threat that it must be countered by such measures as imposing voter ID requirements. With each election, the narrative grows.  What is most striking is that although Trump won the electoral college, he and his team have argued that the integrity of the election was significantly compromised. Famously, Trump tweeted that millions had voted illegally. While the mainstream media could find no evidence of this, Trump’s team has claimed that they have evidence to support Trump’s accusation.

While it seems sensible to dismiss Trump’s claims as the deranged rantings of a delicate man whose fragile ego was wounded by Hillary crushing him in the popular vote, the fact that he is now president would seem to require that his claims be taken seriously. Otherwise, it must be inferred that he is a pathological liar with no credibility who has slandered those running the election and American voters and is thus unworthy of the respect of the American people. Alternatively, his claim must be taken seriously: millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election. This entails that the election’s integrity was grossly violated and hence illegitimate. Thus, by Trump’s own claims about the election, he is not the legitimate president and the election would need to be redone with proper safeguards to keep those millions from voting illegally. So, Trump would seem to be in a dilemma: either he is lying about the election and thus unfit or he is telling the truth and is not a legitimately elected president. Either way undermines him.

It could be countered that while the Republicans allege voter fraud and that Trump claimed millions voted illegally, the election was legitimate because the fraud and illegal voting was all for Hillary and she lost. That is, the electoral system’s integrity has been violated but it did not matter because Trump won. On the one hand, this does have some appeal. To use an analogy, think of a Tour de France in which the officials allow bikers to get away with doping, but the winner is drug free. In that case, the race would be a mess, but the winner would still be legitimate—all the cheating was done by others and they won despite the cheating. On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that if such widespread fraud and illegal voting occurred, then it might well have resulted in Trump’s electoral college victory. Going back to the Tour de France analogy, if the winner claimed that the competition was doping but they were clean and still won, despite the testing system being broken, then there would be some serious doubts about their claim. After all, if the system is broken and they were competing against cheaters, then it is worth considering that their victory was the result of cheating. But, perhaps Trump has proof that all (or most) of the fraud and illegal voting was for Hillary. In this case, he should certainly have evidence showing how all this occurred and evidence sufficient to convict individual voters. As such, arrests and significant alterations to the election system should occur soon. Unless, of course, Trump and the Republicans are simply lying about voter fraud and millions of illegals voting. In which case, they need to stop using the specter of voter fraud to justify their attempts to restrict access to voting. They cannot have it both ways: either voter fraud is real and Trump is illegitimate because the system lacks integrity or the claim of significant voting fraud is a lie.

 

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Teachers’ Unions I: Preliminaries

Discussions of the woes of public education inevitably turn to the subject of teachers’ unions. Some claim they are detrimental to public education, while others claim they are neutral or even beneficial. This is certainly a controversy worth addressing.

Before proceeding with the discussion, I am obligated to disclose that I am a union member. As such, my arguments should be read with proper scrutiny for the influence of unconscious biases on my part. While it might be suspected that I am blindly pro-union, I will endeavor to give an objective assessment of the arguments for and against teachers’ unions. In return, I ask the same of readers.

Objectively assessing teachers’ unions is certainly a daunting task. One reason for this is that the matter has become politically charged.  For many conservatives, it is an article of faith that the main villains of education are the teachers’ unions. Since American politics is so bipolar, it is hardly surprising that liberals tend to favor (or at least tolerate) teachers’ unions. As with many political matters, a person’s stance on teachers’ unions often becomes part of their identity and this has many negative consequences in regards to objectively assessing unions. Ideological commitment is the enemy of rational assessment because it triggers a wide range of cognitive biases and motivates people to accept fallacious reasoning. As such, arguments and data tend to be accepted or rejected based on their correspondence to the ideology rather than their merits. While it is difficult to do so, these tendencies can be overcome—if one is willing to take the effort.

Another reason objective assessment is difficult is that there are entrenched and unfounded opinions about unions even in those who do not make their view of unions part of their political identity. People tend to believe what they hear repeated in the media and otherwise uncritically form opinions. Such unfounded and entrenched opinions can be hard to overcome with reason and evidence, but doing so is easier than getting a person to change an aspect of their political identity.

A third reason, one that helps explain the existence of unfounded opinions on the matter, is that there has been little in the way of rigorous studies of the impact of unions. As such, people tend to be stuck with mere anecdotal evidence and intuitive appeals. While these might turn out to be correct, they do not provide much of a foundation for making good decisions about unions.

In this essay (and the following ones) I will endeavor to objectively assess teachers’ unions in a way that overcomes my own political views and entrenched unfounded opinions. Naturally, I will try to do this with solid argumentation and good data rather than mere anecdotes and intuitions. While my main concern is with the impact of unions on education, I will briefly address two attacks on unions that do not directly relate to education.

One stock attack on unions is the argument based on the idea that it is wrong for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to a union. In politics, this view is called “right to work.” Not surprisingly, it is generally opposed by unions and supported by businesses. Those who support it contend that it is good for business and employees. Those who oppose it point to data showing the negative impact of right to work laws. Since this is a contentious political issue, the various sides reject the data offered by the others because they are regarded as biased.

Being a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics of compelling people to join a union or pay dues rather than with the legal issues. On the face of it, membership in a union should be voluntary as should paying fees to unions. Just as a person should be free to accept or reject a job or any service, the same should apply to unions. However, freedom (as some like to say) is not free: those who make the decision to not join the union or elect to not contribute to the costs of collective bargaining should be excluded from those benefits. As with any goods or services, a person who refuses to pay for them has no right to expect these goods or services. To use an analogy, if a group of homeowners are involved in a lawsuit and want to hire a lawyer, individual homeowners have every right to refuse to pay the lawyer’s fee. However, if they do not pay, they have no right to be free riders. To use another analogy, if a business does not want to join a chamber of commerce, it should be free to not join. However, the business has no right to claim the benefits offered by the chamber of commerce.

In case anyone wonders, I voluntarily joined the union on the moral grounds that I did not want to be a free rider. I knew I would benefit from the union, hence I am obligated to contribute to the costs of getting those services.

If unions are compelled to represent non-members, then the non-members would be obligated to contribute to the cost of this representation and it would be right to compel them to do so. Going back to the lawyer analogy, if the lawyer is compelled to represent all the homeowners, then they are all obligated to pay their share. Otherwise they are engaged in theft, plain and simple. The same holds for the chamber of commerce analogy: if a chamber of commerce is compelled to provide services to all business in the area, then those businesses are obligated to pay if they avail themselves of these benefits.

A second stock argument against teachers’ unions is based on the fact that they do not represent the views of all their members on various social and political issues. While this is a matter of concern, it is not unique to teachers’ unions or unions in general. All groups, ranging from clubs to political parties to nations face this problem. To use a specific example, the state legislature of any American state does not represent the views of all the members of the state. Since people have different and often conflicting views, it is nearly impossible for the representatives of a large group to represent the views of all the members. For example, some union members might favor allowing computer programing to count as a math class while others oppose it. Obviously, the class cannot be a math class and not a math class, so a union stance on the matter will fail to represent all views. As such, being unable to represent every view is not a special problem for teachers’ unions, it is a feature of groups made of people who do not agree about everything.

If the teachers’ union has a democratic process for taking positions on issues, be it direct democracy or electing representatives, then the union would represent the views of the members in the same way any democratic or representative system does. That is, imperfectly and with compromises. As such, the fact that unions do not represent the views of all members is not a special problem for teachers’ unions.

In the following essays I will focus on the claim that teachers unions are bad for education in general and students in particular.

 

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Charter Schools IV: Profit

While being a charter school is distinct from being a for-profit school, one argument in favor of charter schools is because they, unlike public schools, can operate as for-profit businesses. While some might be tempted to assume a for-profit charter school must automatically be bad, it is worth considering this argument.

As one would suspect, the arguments in favor of for-profit charter schools are essentially the same as arguments in favor of providing public money to any for-profit business. While I cannot consider all of them in this short essay, I will present and assess some of them.

One stock argument is the efficiency argument. The idea is that for-profit charter schools have a greater incentive than non-profit schools to be efficient. This is because every increase in efficiency can yield an increase in profits. For example, if a for-profit charter school can offer school lunches at a lower cost than a public school, then the school can turn that difference into a profit. In contrast. A public school has less incentive to be efficient, since there is no profit to be made.

While this argument is reasonable, it can be countered. One obvious concern is that profits can also be increased by cutting costs in ways that are detrimental to the students and employees of the school. For example, the “efficiency” of lower cost school lunches could result from providing the students with less or lower quality food. As another example, a school could not offer essential, but expensive services for students with special needs. As a final example, employee positions and pay could be reduced to detrimental levels.

Another counter is that while public schools lack the profit motive, they still need to accomplish the required tasks with limited funds. As such, they also need to be efficient. In fact, they often must be very creative with extremely limited resources (and teachers routinely spend their own money purchasing supplies for the students). For-profit charter schools must do what public schools do, but must also make a profit—as such, for-profit schools would cost the public more for the same services and thus be less cost effective.

It could be objected that for-profit schools are inherently more efficient than public schools and hence they can make a profit and do all that a public school would do, for the same money or even less. To support this, proponents of for-profit education point to various incidents of badly run public schools.

The easy and obvious reply is that such problems do not arise because the schools are public, they arise because of bad management and other problems. There are many public schools that are well run and there are many for-profit operations that are badly run. As such, merely being for-profit will not make a charter school better than a public school.

A second stock argument in favor of for-profit charter schools is based on the idea competition improves quality. While students go to public school by default, for-profit charter schools must compete for students with public schools, private schools and other charter schools. Since parents generally look for the best school for their children, the highest quality for-profit charter schools will win the competition. As such, the for-profits have an incentive that public schools lack and thus will be better schools.

One obvious concern is that for-profits can get students without being of better quality. They could do so by extensive advertising, by exploiting political connections and various other ways that have nothing to do with quality.

Another concern about making the education of children a competitive business venture is that this competition has causalities: businesses go out of business. While the local hardware store going out of business is unfortunate, having an entire school go out of business would be worse. If a for-profit school goes out of business, there would be considerable disruption to the children and to the schools that would have to accept them. There is also the usual concern that the initial competition will result in a few (or one) for-profit emerging victorious and then settling into the usual pattern of lower quality and higher costs. Think, for example, of cable/internet companies. As such, the competition argument is not as strong as some might believe.

Those who disagree with me might contend that my arguments are mere speculation and that for-profit charter schools should be given a chance. They might turn out to be everything their proponents claim they will be.

While this is a reasonable point, it can be countered by considering the examples presented by other ventures in which for-profit versions of public institutions receive public money. Since there is a school to prison pipeline, it seems relevant to consider the example of for profit prisons.

The arguments in favor of for-profit prisons were like those considered above: for-profit prisons would be more efficient and have higher quality than prisons run by the state. Not surprisingly, to make more profits, many prisons cut staff, pay very low salaries, cut important services and so on. By making incarceration even more of a business, the imprisonment of citizens was incentivized with the expected results of more people being imprisoned for longer sentences. As such, for-profit prisons turned out to be disastrous for the prisoners and the public. While schools are different from prisons, it is easy enough to see the same sort of thing play out with for-profit charter schools.

The best and most obvious analogy is, of course, to the for-profit colleges. As with prisons and charter schools, the usual arguments about efficiency and quality were advanced to allow public money to go to for-profit institutes. The results were not surprising: for profit colleges proved to be disastrous for the students and the public. Far from being more efficient that public and non-profit colleges, the for-profits generally turned out to be significantly more expensive. They also tend to have significantly worse graduation and job placement rates than public and non-profit private schools. Students also accrue far more debt and make significant less money relative to public and private school students. These schools also sometimes go out of business, leaving students abandoned and often with useless credits that cannot transfer. They do, however, often excel at advertising—which explains how they lure in so many students when there are vastly better alternatives.

The public also literally paid the price—the for-profits receive a disproportionate amount of public money and students take out more student loans to pay for these schools and default on them more often. Far from being models of efficiency and quality, the for-profit colleges have often turned out to be little more than machines for turning public money into profits for a few. This is not to say that for-profit charter schools must become exploitation engines as well, but the disaster of for-profit colleges must be taken as a cautionary tale. While there are some who see our children as another resource to be exploited for profits, we should not allow this to happen.

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Charter Schools III: Ideology & Choice

In my prior essay on charter schools, I considered the quality argument. The idea is that charter schools provide a higher quality alternative to public schools and should receive public money so that poorer families can afford to choose them. The primary problem with this argument is that it seems to make more sense to use public money to improve public schools—as opposed to siphoning money from them. I now turn to another aspect of choice, that of ideology (broadly construed).

While parents want to be able to choose a quality school for their children, some parents are also interested in having ideological alternatives to public schools. This desire forms the basis for the ideological choice argument for charter schools. While public schools are supposed to be as ideologically neutral as possible, some see public schools as ideologically problematic in two broad ways.

One way is that the public schools provide content and experiences that conflict with the ideology of some parents, most commonly with religious values. For example, public schools often teach evolution in science classes and this runs contrary to some theological views about the age of the earth and how species arise. As another example, some public schools allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, which runs contrary to the values of some parents. As a third example, some schools teach history (such as that of slavery) in ways that run afoul of the ideology of parents. As a final example, some schools include climate change in their science courses, which might be rejected by some parents on political grounds.

A second way is that public schools fail to provide ideological content and experiences that parents want them to provide, often based on their religious views. For example, a public school might not provide Christian prayers in the classroom. As another example, a public school might not offer religious content in the science classes (such as creationism). As a final example, a public school might not offer abstinence only sex education, which can conflict with the values of some parents.

Charter schools, the argument goes, can offer parents an ideological alternative to public schools, thus giving them more choices in regards to the education of their children. Ideological charter schools can avoid offering content and experiences that parents do not want for their children while offering the content and experiences they want. For example, a private charter school could teach creationism and have facilities that conform to traditional gender identities.

It might be argued that parents already have such a choice: they can send their children to existing private schools. But, as noted in my first essay, many parents cannot afford to pay for such private schools. Since charter schools receive public money, parents who cannot afford to send their children to private ideological schools can send them to ideological charter schools, thus allowing them to exercise their right to choose. As an alternative to charter schools, some places have school voucher systems which allow students to attend private (often religious) schools using public money. The appeal of this approach is that it allows those who are less well-off to enjoy the same freedom of choice as the well off. After all, it seems unfair that the poor should be denied this freedom simply because they are poor. That said, there are some problems with ideological charter schools.

One concern about ideological charter schools is that that they would involve the funding of specific ideologies with public money. For example, public money going to a religious charter school would be a case of public funding of that religion, which is problematic in many ways in the United States. Those who favor ideological charter schools tend to do so because they are thinking of their own ideology. However, it is important to consider that allowing such charter schools opens the door to ideologies other than one’s own. For example, conservative Christian proponents of religious charter schools are no doubt thinking of public money going to Christian schools and are not considering that public money might also flow to Islamic charter schools or charter transgender training academies. Or perhaps they have already thought about how to ensure the money flows in accord with their ideology.

Another concern is that funding ideological charter schools with public money would be denying others their choice—there are many taxpayers who do not want their money going to fund ideologies they do not accept. For example, people who do not belong to a religious sect would most likely not want to involuntarily support that sect.

What might seem to be an obvious counter is that there are people who do not want their money going to public schools because of their ideological views. So, if it is accepted that public money can go to public schools, it should also be allowed to flow into ideological charter schools.

The reply to this is that public schools are controlled by the public, typically through elected officials. As such, people do have a choice in regards to the content and experiences offered by public schools. While people will not always get what they want, they do have a role in the democratic process. Public money is thus being spent in accord with what the public wants—as determined by this process. In contrast, the public does not have comparable choice when it comes to ideological charter schools—they are, by their very nature, outside of the public education system. This is not to say that there should not be such ideological schools, just that they should be in the realm of private choice rather than public funding.

To use a road analogy, imagine that Billy believes that it is offensive in the eyes of God for men and women to drive on the same roads and he does not want his children to see such blasphemy. Billy has every right to stay off the public roads and every right to start his own private road system on his property. However, he does not have the right to expect public road money to be diverted to his private road system so that he can exercise his choice.

Billy could, however, argue that as a citizen he is entitled to his share of the public road money. Since he is not using the public roads, the state should send him that share so that he might fund his private roads. He could get others to join him and pool these funds, thus creating his ideological charter roads. If confronted by the objection that the public should not fund his ideology, Billy could counter by arguing that road choice should not be a luxury that must be purchased. Rather, it is an entitlement that the state is obligated to provide.

This points to a key part of the matter about public funding for things like public roads and public education: are citizens entitled to access to the public systems or are they entitled to the monetary value of that access, which they should be free to use elsewhere? My intuition is that citizens are entitled to access to the public system rather than to a cash payout from the state. Citizens can elect to forgo such access, but this does not entitle them to a check from the state. As a citizen, I have the right to use the public roads and send any children I might have to the public schools. However, I am not entitled to public money to fund roads or schools that match my ideology just because I do not like the public system. As a citizen, I have the right to try to change the public systems—that is how democratic public systems are supposed to work. As such, while the ideological choice argument is appealing, it does not seem compelling.

 

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Charter Schools II: Choice & Quality

In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.

Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.

One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.

One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.

The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.

As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.

While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.

Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.

Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”

In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.

 

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Charter Schools I: Preliminaries & Monopolies

In November of 2016, president elect Trump selected Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. While this appointment seems to have changed her mind about Common Core, DeVos has remained committed to expanding charter schools. Charter schools operate outside of the public-school system but are funded with public money. They can be privately owned and run as for-profit business. As might be suspected, they tend to be rather controversial.

Before discussing charter schools, I need to present the biasing factors in my background. Like most Americans, I attended public schools. Unlike some Americans, I got a very good public education that laid the foundation for my undergraduate and graduate education. Both of my parents were educators; my father taught math and computer science and my mother had a long career as a guidance counsellor. I ended up going to a private college and then to a public graduate school. This led to my current career as a philosophy professor at a state university. I belong to the United Faculty of Florida, the NEA and the AFT. As such, I am a union member. As might be suspected, my background inclines me to be suspicious of charter schools. As such, I will take special care to consider the matter fairly and objectively.

As with most politically charged debates, the battle over charter schools tends to be long on rhetoric and short on reasoned arguments. Devoted proponents of charter schools lament the ruin of public education, crusade for choice, and praise the profit motive as panacea for the woes of the academies. Energized enemies of charter schools regard them as plots against public good and profiteering at the expense of the children.

While there is some merit behind these rhetorical stances, charter schools should neither be accepted nor rejected based on mere rhetoric or ideological stances. As liberals and conservatives have both noted, there are serious problems in the American education system. Charter schools have been advanced as a serious proposal to address some of these problems and are worthy of objective consideration. I will begin with what can be called the monopoly argument in favor of charter schools.

Proponents of charter schools often assert that the state holds a monopoly on education and employ arguments by analogy to show why this is a bad thing. For example, the state monopoly on education might be compared to living in an area with only one internet service provider. This provider offers poor service, but residents are forced by law to pay for it and competition is forbidden. While this is probably better than not having any internet access at all, it is certainly a bad situation that could be improved by competition. If the analogy holds, then poor quality education could be improved by legalizing competition.

This analogy can also be used, obviously enough, to argue that people who do have children in school should not be forced to pay into the education system. This would be, to stick with the analogy, like making people who have no computers (including tablets and phones) pay for internet access they do not use. This is, however, another issue and I will return to the matter of charter schools.

While the analogy does have some appeal, the state does not have a monopoly on education. There are, obviously enough, private schools that operate without public money. These provide competition to public schools, thus showing that there is not a monopoly. By going through the appropriate procedures, anyone with the resources can create a private school. And anyone with the resources to afford a private school can attend. As such, there is already a competitive education industry in place that provides an alternative to public education. There is also the option of home schooling, which also breaks the alleged monopoly.

Supporters of charter schools can counter that there is a monopoly without charter schools. To be specific, without charter schools, public schools have a monopoly on public money. Charter schools, by definition, break this monopoly by allowing public funds to go to schools outside the state education system.

This can allow privately owned charter schools to enjoy what amounts to state subsidies, thus making it easier to start a privately-owned charter school than a privately funded private school. Those who are concerned about state subsidies might find this sort of thing problematic, perhaps because it seems to confer an unfair advantage over privately funded schools and funnels public money into private hands.

Supporters can counter these criticisms by turning them into virtues. Public money spent on charter schools is good exactly because it makes it easier to fund competing schools. Private schools without public funding need to operate in a free market—they must compete for customer money without the benefit of the state picking winners and losers. As such, there will not be very many privately funded schools.  Charter schools benefit from the largesse of the state, although they do need to attract enough students. But this is made easier by the fact that charter school education is subsidized by public money.

As such, charter schools would break the public-school system’s monopoly on public money, although there is not a monopoly on education (since privately funded schools exist). The question remains as to whether or not breaking the funding monopoly is a good thing or not, which leads to the subject of the next essay in this series, that of choice.

 

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The Return of Sophism

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump surrogate, presented her view of truth on The Diane Rehm Show. As she sees it:

Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

Since the idea that there are no facts seems so ridiculously absurd, the principle of charity demands that some alternative explanation be provided for Hughes’ claim. Her view should be familiar to anyone who has taught an introductory philosophy class. There is always at least one student who, often on day one of the class, smugly asserts that everything is a matter of opinion and thus there is no truth. A little discussion, however, usually reveals that they do not really believe what they think they believe. Rather than thinking that there really is no truth, they merely think that people disagree about what they think is true and that people have a right to freedom of belief. If this is what Hughes believes, they I have no dispute with her: people believe different things and, given Mill’s classic arguments about liberty, it seems reasonable to accept freedom of thought.

But, perhaps, the rejection of facts is not as absurd as it seems. As I tell my students, there are established philosophical theories that embrace this view. One is relativism, which is the view that truth is relative to something—this something is typically a culture, though it could also be (as Hughes seems to hold) relative to a political affiliation. One common version of this is aesthetic relativism in which beauty is relative to the culture, so there is no objective beauty. The other is subjectivism, which is the idea that truth is relative to the individual. Sticking with an aesthetic example, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a subjectivist notion. On this view, there is not even a cultural account of beauty, beauty is entirely dependent on the observer. While Hughes does not develop her position, she seems to be embracing political relativism or even subjectivism: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”

If Hughes takes the truth to be relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then she is a relativist. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If she holds truth to be dependent on the individual, then she would be a subjectivist. In this case, each person has her own truth, but she might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

While some might think that this view of truth in politics is something new, it is ancient and dates back at least to the sophists of ancient Greece. The sophists presented themselves as pragmatic and practical—for a fee, they would train a person to sway the masses to gain influence and power. One of the best-known sophists, thanks to Plato, was Protagoras—he offered to teach people how to succeed.

The rise of these sophists is easy to explain—a niche had been created for them. Before the sophists came the pre-Socratic philosophers who argued relentlessly against each other. Thales, for example, argued that the world is water. Heraclitus claimed it was fire. These disputes and the fact the arguments tended to be well-balanced for and against any position, gave rise to skepticism. This is the philosophical view that we lack knowledge. Some thinkers embraced this and became skeptics, others went beyond skepticism.

Skepticism often proved to be a gateway drug to relativism—if we cannot know what is true, then it seems sensible that truth is relative. If there is no objective truth, then the philosophers and scientist are wasting their time looking for what does not exist. The religious and the ethical are also wasting their time—there is no true right and no true wrong. But accepting this still leaves twenty-four hours a day to fill, so the question remained about what a person should do in a world without truth and ethics. The sophists offered an answer.

Since searching for truth or goodness would be pointless, the sophists adopted a practical approach. They marketed their ideas to make money and offered, in return, the promise of success. Some of the sophists did accept that there were objective aspects of reality, such as those that would fall under the science of physics or biology. They all rejected the idea that what philosophers call matters of value (such as ethics, politics, and economics) are objective, instead embracing relativism or subjectivism.

Being practical, they did recognize that many of the masses professed to believe in moral (and religious) values and they were aware that violating these norms could prove problematic when seeking success. Some taught their students to act in accord with the professed values of society. Others, as exemplified by Glaucon’s argument for the unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story of the Republic, taught their students to operate under the mask of morality and social values while achieving success by any means necessary. These views had a clear impact on lying.

Relativism still allows for there to be lies of a sort. For those who accept objective truth, a lie (put very simply) an intentional untruth, usually told with malicious intent. For the relativist, a lie would be intentionally making a claim that is false relative to the group in question, usually with malicious intent. Going back to Hughes’ example, to Trump’s true believers Trump’s claims are true because they accept them. The claims that Trump is lying would be lies to the Trump believers, because they believe that claim is untrue and that the Trump doubters are acting with intent. The reverse, obviously enough, holds for the Trump doubters—they have their truth and the claims of the Trump believers are lies. This approach certainly seems to be in use now, with some pundits and politicians embracing the idea that what they disagree with is thus a lie.

Relativism does rob the accusation of lying of much of its sting, at least for those who understand the implications of relativism. On this view a liar is not someone who is intentionally making false claims, a liar is someone you disagree with. This does not mean that relativism is false, it just means that accusations of untruth become rhetorical tools and emotional expressions without any, well, truth behind them. But, they serve well in this capacity as a tool to sway the masses—as Trump showed with great effect. He simply accuses those who disagree with him of being liars and many believe him.

I have no idea whether Trump has a theory of truth or not, but his approach is utterly consistent with sophism and the view expressed by Hughes. It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence—these assume there is a truth that can be found and supported. But if there is no objective truth and only success matters, then there is no reason not to say anything that leads to success.

There are, of course, some classic problems for relativism and sophism. Through Socrates, Plato waged a systematic war on relativism and sophism—some of the best criticisms can be found in his works.

One concise way to refute relativism is to point out that relativism requires a group to define the truth. But, there is no way principled way to keep the definition of what counts as a group of believers from sliding to there being a “group” of one, which is subjectivism. The problem with subjectivism is that if it is claimed that truth is entirely subjective, then there is no truth at all—we end up with nihilism. One obvious impact of nihilism is that the sophists’ claim that success matters is not true—there is no truth. Another important point is that relativism about truth seems self-refuting: it being true requires that it be false. This argument seems rather too easy and clever by far, but it does make an interesting point for consideration.

In closing, it is fascinating that Hughes so openly presented her relativism (and sophism). Most classic sophists advocated, as noted above, operating under a mask of accepting conventional moral values. But, just perhaps, we are seeing a bold new approach to sophism: one that is trying to shift the values of society to openly accepting relativism and embracing sophism. While potentially risky, this could yield considerable political advantages and sophism might see its day of triumph. Assuming that it has not already done so.

 

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Post Truth

It has been declared, rather dramatically, that this is a post-truth era. In making a case for this, people point to Trump lifting himself into the presidency on an unrelenting spew of untruths as well as the surging success of fake news. On the one hand, this view is appealing: untruth seems to have emerged victorious over truth. On the other hand, this view is obviously false. Truth remains, as it always has and always shall. In discussing this matter, I will begin with a metaphor.

Imagine, if you will, people in a tent located within the jungle of the real. Between the fabric walls of the tent, the inhabitants weave narratives about all manner of things and are rewarded or punished based on whether others believe or reject their tales. Some realized it did not matter whether their tales were true or not and found that lies were lapped up like the sweetest honey. They became convinced that all that mattered was their stories. But they are wrong.

Outside the tent, stalking the jungle of the real, is a tiger whose name is “truth.” The tiger does not care about the sweetness of narratives. The thin fabric of the tent is no match for her claws. The tiger might pass by the tent (and perhaps the dwellers grow a bit quiet and nervous) time and time again while doing nothing (allowing the dwellers to return to their noisy tale telling). But someday, perhaps soon, the tiger will come through the thin fabric and her hunger will not be satisfied by even the sweetest of lies.

While a metaphor is not an argument, it is easy enough to make one based on the tiger story. The tent is analogous to the society we construct that serves as a fabric between us and the rest of world (the jungle of the real). The people in the tent are us and the untrue narratives are the lies. The tiger is truth, which is how things really are. As in the metaphor, no matter what lies people tell, the truth remains true. While people can often get away with these untruths and perhaps avoid the consequences for a while, reality remains unchanged for good or ill. For example, consider the narrative woven by the sugar industry about sugar, fats and heart disease.  This tale, told within the tent, has shaped the American diet for decades and served the sugar industry well. However, reality is not changed by such narratives and the consequences for health have been rather serious. The tobacco companies provide yet another example of this sort of thing. Perhaps the best example is climate change. Some think that it is lie told by a global conspiracy of scientists. Others think that its denial is a lie fueled by those who profit from fossil fuels. Regardless of one’s view, one side is weaving a false narrative. But the tiger is out there—the fact of the matter.

It could be objected that few believe that this is really a post-truth era in the sense that there is no truth. Rather, it is that truth just does not matter that much in certain contexts, such as politics. In one sense, this is true—Trump was, for example, rewarded for his relentless untruths and he might usher in a regime of untruth with great success. Some of those peddling fake news have also enjoyed great financial success, thus showing (once more) that there can be great profit in lies. On this view, Ben Franklin was wrong: honesty is no longer the best policy, lying is. At least in the context of politics and business.

In another sense, this is not true. While lying has proven an effective short term strategy, it will still ultimately run up against the truth. Going back to the metaphor, the tiger is always out there. As an example, while the narrative of climate change might result in short term success, eventually it will prove to be a long-term disaster. Those who believe it is real recognize the disaster will be the climate change. Those who deny it claim that the ruin will result from the catastrophic environmental policies imposed by the green gang. So, both sides assert that reality will impose a disaster—though they disagree on the nature of that disaster. While both cannot be right in their claims about climate change itself, they are both right that ignoring the truth will be a disaster—something that is very often the case.

It could be countered that my view is mistaken because I am considering the impact of such lies broadly—that is, how their consequences can impact people in general. I should, instead, focus on the advantages to those engaged in the untruths. In philosophical terms, I should embrace ethical egoism—the moral theory that what is right is to maximize value for oneself. Alternatively, I should just accept selfishness as a virtue.

While it is true that an unskilled liar can end up in trouble, those with a true talent for untruth can ensure that they benefit from their untruths and that the harmful consequences impact others. One obvious way this can occur is that the harms will take time to arrive. So, for example, lies about the climate will not harm the liars of today—they will be dead before the greatest consequences arrive. Another way this can happen is that the harms occur to other people and are avoided by the liar by physical distance from the harms of their lies. For example, lies about the safety of a town’s water would not impact the health of a governor who does not live in the town.

A third way is that the liar might be able to protect themselves through their wealth or position. For example, a rich straight white Christian who lies about things impacting Muslims, blacks, gays or poor people does not reap the harms of those lies. These consequences fall upon the others.

A selfish reply to this is that most of us are more likely to be harmed by broad lies than benefited by them. This is because most of us care about our relatives who will be alive when we are gone, because most of us live in the impact zone of lies, and because most of us lack the status and wealth to escape the consequences of broad lies. As such, we have a selfish interest to oppose lying—it ultimately hurts us far more than truth.

An altruistic reply is that we should care about other people and the harms they suffer. This can also be argued for on utilitarian moral grounds—that this lying will create more unhappiness than happiness for everyone. There is also the religious argument—most religions endorse the truth and enjoin us to show compassion for others, to love each other as God has loved us. As such, the post-truth world should be rejected. Honesty is, as Ben said, the best policy.

 

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A Philosopher’s Blog 2016 free on Amazon (12/31/2016-1/4/2017)

A Philosopher's Blog 2014 CoverThis book contains essays from the 2016 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. Subjects range from the metaphysics of guardian angels to the complicated ethics of guns. There are numerous journeys into the realm of political philosophy and some forays into the kingdom of fake news.
The essays are short, but substantial—yet approachable enough to not require a degree in philosophy.

The book, in Kindle format, will be free on Amazon from 12/31/2016 until 1/4/2017. This deal applies worldwide.

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