An Alternative Vision of Education: Forbidden!
If you downloaded my tabulation of 2006 local government employment data from last week’s post, and saw that New York City had one instructional employee for every 8.9 students, you might have had the following thought: if all of these were teachers, they were with the children all day (like Catholic School teaches are), and if they didn’t take any sick days, New York City could have a class size of NINE. Or, perhaps six for special education, and ten for general education. In that case, teachers could hold class in their living room right in the neighborhood where they and their students lived, like the local home-based child-care provider or piano teacher. Without all the educational overhead, those teachers could then be paid more, and could earn additional money from parents to watch some of the kids after school. You may have thought of this now, but someone else with clout in Albany had thought of it already: state law would make this educational option illegal.
I know this because at one time I was the project director of an ambitious (well, I was ambitious), later aborted effort to update the city’s zoning use, parking and home occupation regulations. As part of that research, I investigated state statutes that the city’s ordinance might want to correspond with, and came upon the rules for at-home child care providers. The rules are quite sensible. Legal home child care providers are limited to six pre-school children, only a couple of whom could be under age 2. A whole industry of trained, licensed providers has sprung up, including the wonderful woman who watched my kids and several others from the neighborhood, in addition to her own grandchild. She’s still on the job, a third grandmother to scores.
A typical New York solution, in contrast, would have limited legal childcare to high-overhead providers at a cost of $60,000 per child, with limited subsidies available and somehow always going to those with political connections or inside information. But in this case, the State of New York had mercy. There is, however, a more typical New York provision in the law. Legal at-home providers are permitted to provide care and instruction for up to 12 school-age children, but only during after school hours and days when school is out of session. But they are prohibited form providing such services when public school is in session. Who put that provision in, and why is it there? Why would a parent want to have a school-age child in at-home care when school is in session? Because the at-home care was a competing school, that’s why!
Such an educational alternative, even it if existed, wouldn’t be for everyone. Teachers would have to be vetted for a few years in a regular school before being permitted to educate children at home. Some would miss interaction with colleagues, though they could certainly meet up with other at-home teachers in public parks, playgrounds, and libraries during the day, even swapping kids for alternating lessons. Not every teacher has enough space at home in space-challenged New York, and there may be home insurance issues. Most parents would prefer traditional schools, with more children to be friends with and more extensive facilities.
On the other hand, some might prefer smaller classes and more personal touch. If such an option existed, perhaps enough would take it to eliminate overcrowding in the city’s regular schools. And such an arrangement could help reduce the enormous cost of rural schools, and the distances children travel to them. You couldn’t quite have a class size of nine, because you would still need a supervisor for each, say, 12 at-home providers, showing up at different times, making sure all was going well, and providing support. But a class size of 12 would be achievable, with higher teacher pay, at the same cost (or less) that NYC (let alone the suburbs) is spending today.
What I am describing here is a “craft-based” vision of education, a kind of 1960ish, Jane Jacobsian, “Small is Beautiful” concept, with people staying in their neighborhoods to work in their homes, meeting up at local “third places,” and keeping “eyes on the street,” and teachers doing the lunch cooking and cleaning themselves, perhaps with the help of the children. Something that you might see in San Francisco, or on a commune. A real “liberal” vision, in other words, in the sense that the Democrats used to think of themselves as representing small local businesses and alternative organizations, as well as public employee unions and workers, against the big Republican corporations.
What we have, in contrast, is an educational factory system, in which the assembly line workers (the teachers) are backed by extensive capital investment (the schools and equipment) and various specialists. According to the Census Bureau, “instructional employees” include teachers, substitutes, teachers’ aides, librarians, library aides, supervisors, principals, superintendents, guidance and psychological personnel. Other school employees include administrative and clerical workers, operations and maintenance employees, school cafeteria workers, health and recreation employees, and others. Overhead is high, but as on any assembly line direct labor is supposed to be minimized, with products passing efficiently through stages of the production cycle in lots of 40 or 50 units.
And that’s they way it used to work, and in some cases still works in NYC where student to instructional employee ratios are below the U.S. average, but class sizes are higher (or at least that’s what I am told). But while I don’t mind the factory school model (it worked for me 30 to 40 years ago), many parents don’t. So what has evolved in high-tax places is movement toward craft-sized class sizes with all the overhead of the industrial education model on top of that. This costs a ton.
Those who are complaining about Mayor Bloomberg’s “one size fits all” education policy ought to realize that we have always had is a one-size fits all policy. Or perhaps one size for those in special deal schools, and a smaller size for the rest. The real difference is between those who think what we had was good enough for the likes of New York City’s children, and those who think it was not (and perhaps still is not). My view is that the government should not be prohibiting alternatives, such as the one above, or imposing harsh financial penalties on alternatives, such as by collecting taxes for education from those who send their children to parochial schools but not helping to fund those schools, without very good reasons.
And no, the suggestion I’m making here is not just a straw man, I am serious. Among the desperate options we briefly considered when state aid the city’s schools was slashed, teaching materials disappeared, and the kindergarten class at the local elementary school soared to 35 kids just as our oldest was ready to enter school, was trying to create an arrangement similar to this one with 10-11 other parents. Given a wide range of viable options, this isn’t what I would have chosen, but I’ll be there are those who would make this choice. Should it be forbidden? And this isn't the only example of a case where I was reading through a set of rules and found something that made me ask "why is THAT there?"
One more thing: the State Assembly is considering requiring New York City to cut class sizes to the state median. To have NYC’s student to instructional employee ratio (8.9) match the average for the rest of the state (8.5), the city would have to hire 5,000 additional employees. It may be, however, that fewer are required, because it is likely that more of the instructional employees elsewhere are non-teachers. But before we hire anyone, as opposed to paying existing teachers more, could someone ask Randi Weingarten, Joel Klein, or SOMEONE to explain how we ended up with such large classes when our ratio of students to instructional employee ration is much lower than the national average (10.4)? Back when people were submitting amicus briefs to the CFE case, I was asked to look over a submission by a small class size advocate. I was shocked to find her praising class size reduction efforts in Tennessee -- where student to instructional staff ratios are much higher than in NYC, and were public school spending as a share of personal income was lower than NYC back in the 1990s when no other state was. What are they doing right that we are doing wrong?
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