It Isn’t Just WHAT, It’s Also HOW

As conversations prompted by the presidential primary season devolve into name-calling and efforts to excavate every clumsy observation or error in judgment made by the candidates, it may be time to step back and point to some of the very real, very bipartisan problems Americans have understanding the public policy process.

Politically, we Americans really are bipolar: policies are either good or bad, brilliant or stupid, obvious or obviously ridiculous. Shades of gray? Middle ground? Complex? Perish the thought.

Worse still, we fail to recognize the difference between policy prescriptions and the policy process–that is, the difference between setting a goal and having a strategy for achieving that goal–a workable strategy for overcoming the obstacles and getting from wherever it is that we are to the place where we want to be.

Where we want to be and how we get there are very different questions, although listening to American political discourse, you’d never know that.

The problems with our “good vs. bad” approach are especially visible in the current, heated arguments about charter schools. To begin with, too many participants in those arguments conflate charter schools–which are public schools–with the private, mostly religious schools that have benefitted from vouchers. The issues raised by these two approaches are very different, although you’d be hard pressed to find recognition of those differences when reading angry Facebook diatribes.

But simply recognizing that charters and vouchers are different animals is also insufficient.

A while back, Doug Masson–one of Indiana’s most thoughtful bloggers and a member of a public-school board–pointed out that the difference between “what” and “how” is especially relevant to the performance of charter schools.

Advocates and critics of charters alike make a distinction between charters that are for profit and those that are non-profit. (Research suggests to many of us that educational institutions shouldn’t be run by for-profit ventures, for a variety of reasons.) Masson notes that the distinction requires a closer look. If the management company hired by a non-profit is for-profit, the fact that the school itself is non-profit is probably not very meaningful.

Masson then homes in on a very significant “how” question: what sort of regulatory framework is likely to ensure the success of a state’s charter schools?

There seems to be some evidence that charters can produce positive outcomes under the sorts of tight regulation Massachusetts has. Indiana is absolutely not going to impose that kind of close regulation and I’m guessing the charter advocates aren’t going to be supportive of that sort of regulation going nationwide.

He quotes from the Harvard Political Review:

“It appears that Massachusetts’ charter laws are responsible, at least in large part, for the superior performance of the state’s charter schools. Indeed, Massachusetts prohibits for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs), and its process for authorizing charter schools is particularly rigorous. According to Alison Bagg, director of charter schools and school redesign at the Massachusetts Department of Education, Massachusetts is one of the few states in which the Department of Education serves as the sole authorizer of charter schools. “You have some states that have hundreds and hundreds of charters schools, all authorized by these districts or non-profits,” Bagg explained to the HPR. In Massachusetts, by contrast, “it has been historically very difficult to get a charter,” and the state has been recognized by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers as “one of the leaders in charter school authorizing nationwide.”

The charter renewal process is also quite rigorous, according to Bagg. The state monitors charter schools closely and has the ability to close charter schools that have achieved poor results—a practice that is not universal across states.”

Of course, that’s Massachusetts.

In Indiana, by contrast, we get a school corporation like Daleville sponsoring the Indiana Virtual School charter which then takes state money for kids who are dead or have long since moved out of state.

That’s because Hoosiers don’t have a legislature that understands–or cares about– the importance of “how.”


  1. As I read the breakdown of Bernie’s amazing (and to me, questionable) victory in Nevada, I realized something which Sheila put into words with the title of today’s blog; “It Isn’t Just WHAT, It’s Also HOW”. Bernie’s largest numbers were the under 30-year-olds and Hispanics, the Nevada Hispanics appeared to be the service workers. Medicare for all, taxing the rich to pay their fair share and higher wages for workers appear to be Bernie’s base. This takes me back to Sheila’s frequent reminder of the lack of civic education in this country; not to disparage young voters or Hispanics, but are they the largest voting population lacking this education advantage?

    As we have learned through experiencing the past 3 1/2 years under Trump; even a fool can move into the White House and destroy protections for all which have taken decades through several administrations to provide. There appears to be no thought as to HOW to enact the campaign promises can or will be done by any of the candidates in time to salvage what is left of democracy, Rule of Law and supporting the Constitution of the United States.

    “Where we want to be and how we get there are very different questions, although listening to American political discourse, you’d never know that.”

  2. To be honest, Trump and Bannon were late in coming to power. If they wanted to lead a fascist takeover, they should have been in Dallas during the ’80s. That was where the battle was fought. And the good guys won. Tough luck!

  3. I worry that Indiana’s legislature has thought about the “what” and the “how” when it comes to charters. I mean, it’s hopelessly broken in Indiana – but it is funneling money to the people who support the legislature.

    I think, perhaps, we view the education system as broken because we tend to think the system is supposed to be helping educate. If we consider that it’s supposed to be enriching the certain groups – it seems to be working swimmingly.

  4. So, if we add free college to free K-12, will we ultimately devalue college, the way we have devalued public K-12?

  5. JoAnn – Out of curiosity, why was the victory unbelievable? I mean, that’s about where polls indicated he’d finish. “Sanders lands almost exactly where predicted” doesn’t seem that unbelievable to me.

  6. One way to distinguish between the approaches of Indiana and Massachusetts in regard to charter schools is to remember the mantra associated with Mao Tse Tung: “Let a hundred flowers bloom.” If you sprinkle enough money around, some of it will bear fruit and some of it will not. That may be fine in a garden, but when the education of the state’s children is involved, depending on random processes for success does not seem sensible. Free enterprise run amok seems to be what Indiana chose.

  7. Peggy ,if your involved with your local educators at schools, then you have a input to thier output.
    being a,taxpayer,usually and with some recognition of the job demands of public education,gets you,,make the meetings, make suggestions, and be ready to answer their questions. simple democracy,and where many a politician joined the political field. devalued education is where taxes are cut, teachers are cut, supplies are cut,libraries are cut, school gym is cut, band is cut, after school help cut,school dean of students cut,mentors forgot to show up,the nurse is only there on thursdays,and,,,,where the people neglect the education… by the people,for,the the kids you care, join the meetings..

  8. As a side note, “Why aren’t unionized teachers going on strike for all working-class stiffs who don’t have union protection?”

    Those who work in social services don’t start out making $45,000 a year.

    Teachers might get more support for their causes if they stood with other working-class plebs to elevate the salaries of average taxpayers.

    As JoAnn mentions, education, or lack thereof, is a significant concern and has been for decades. Our test results lag other countries, and many colleges across the country are nothing more than diploma mills.

    How do we reform our educational system?

    Personally, our lackluster educational system feeds into the propaganda media we get in this country. My high school chums quickly point out my masters from a West coast university for why I disagree with their ‘knuckle-dragging’ commentary on pretty much everything. The ‘knuckle-draggers’ scoff at education which floors me.

    Oh, another side note, how do we educate our seniors in modern ways?

    They can have Ph.D.’s in education but still suffer from the inability to do a Google search.

  9. A lot of this “confusion” is caused by a fragmented press and the rise of social media and every sort of conspiratorial commenting Trap Yapper. So you can pick your own reality, your own tribe along with its prejudices, and pick your poison.

    The concern of the politicians is not the general welfare of the public, it’s how much can be extorted from the public. The public is not a cause for concern because all the public is to government, are commodities! Not just corporations pandering to consumerism, it’s taxation without representation! Every tax that’s enacted in the United States should be authorized by ballot, whether it’s during elections and primaries, or special ballot.

    Everybody loves to go on a little spending spree if you have that ability, unfortunately for the general public, municipal, township, County, State, and federal governments love to spend other people’s money! With the press being so fragmented, tribalized I guess you could say, and the social media insurgency, the majority recoil, baffled by all of the colliding opinions that have been nefariously designed to keep everyone divided and confused, playing on fears, prejudices, and ignorance.

    Freedom of speech, one of the major tenants of the Constitution, has been used towards its demise! The old saying, you can’t see the forest because the trees are in the way, well, that’s true! You can’t see the truth through the avalanche of disinformation and lies. This will not change, it’s gone on for too long, it’s what we called in the unions, past practice. It becomes a matter of law. So, if any entity would try to alter business as usual, it would be flooded by lawsuits, all would be citing past practice. Arguing over how to plug the the hole in the bottom of the boat, the boat that’s not even within eyesight of the shore.

  10. JoAnn – Right, but I still don’t know why anything was all that surprising. Biden, Pete, and Warren were all polling w/in the margin of error of each other. They finished 2, 3, 4. Biden did a bit better than anticipated, but not so wildly that it seems very odd (to me any way) and he and Pete landed pretty close to each other. Sanders finished 1st, but he was polling in 1st. He finished with ~ 40% and he was polling at about 40%.

    Like I said, it’s not like any of the final numbers are outside what the polling showed. I would have thought the Nevada result was exactly in line with expectations – at least the expectations as set a couple days before voting.

  11. Caucuses are a joke, whoever has the best brow beaters in attendance will win! Those should’ve been eliminated a long time ago. That along with the electoral college! A true democracy considers everyone, with the majority having the seat at the head of the table.

  12. Having helped found a charter school in Colorado Springs, I can mention, first hand, that it amounts to little in the way children learn. Oh, there are some innovations and clever lesson/group learning, but in the end, it’s about caring, motivated and knowledgable teachers engaging students and getting students engaged in learning the curriculum. After about 5 years, the district noticed little or no difference in performance between the charter and the regular schools, and turned the charter school into a depository for incorrigible kids who chose not to learn.


    Some of us seniors actually grew up using computers and all they entail since they became fast enough and large enough in the mid-70s and onward. Your insult to Ph.D.s in education and business/industry is ill-founded and basically bigoted. Empowering seniors to BE THE EDUCATORS draws on their vast knowledge and experience bases. Heaven knows, younger people could use some of that knowledge. Then they might understand the differences between what and how.

  13. Chalkbeat has an article concerning the following:
    When Indiana’s largest charter network collapsed earlier this year after an enrollment scandal that triggered state and federal investigations, the resulting mess left hundreds of students scrambling for transcripts, dozens of teachers unpaid, and $40 million still owed to the state.

    The downfall of Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy also placed under the microscope Daleville Community Schools, a tiny rural district that runs just two brick-and-mortar schools serving fewer than 1,000 students in total.

    “Call us naive, but I think we were trusting educators to do the right thing,” Daleville Superintendent Paul Garrison said in a recent interview, referring to the charter operator.

    “We were working with people that we trusted, that had the same love and outlook and concern for the kids that they were serving that we had,” Garrison explained. “Well, that’s how we looked at them. We assumed — maybe falsely.”

    Despite having no experience as a charter authorizer, Daleville took on an oversight role when Indiana Virtual School opened in 2011 and, over the years, accepted more than $3.2 million in state funding to monitor them and ensure their success.

    I suppose knowing the way “The Wheels of Justice” move at a glacially slow pace for White Collar Crimes it could be years before justice is served – if at all.

  14. Sheila’s not just what but how query has application beyond current public v. charter arguments. It has application in virtually all matters in which government national through local plays a role, and it is this fundamental question that is often either unanswered or brushed aside by politicians of both parties which has led me to support Elizabeth Warren, whose plans have plans for both funding and the how. We of both parties are shortchanged when we only hear of the goodies to be distributed and not the means for their funding, the population to be served, and the how of their administration.

    Mayor Pete as well as Senator Warren also discusses the bad news as well as the good news while Bernie vaguely discusses taxing the rich and Amy and Joe prefer to talk of other issues, actively or implicitly denying the truth of the old adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Trump, of course, favors free breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Jut put them on the bill for our grandchildren to pay, thus pretending to the illusion of a healthy current economy which ignores double entry accounting practices.

    Both what and how to do it are, for better or worse, subject to political whim, so what to do? Elect politicians who share our reasoned interest in education and every other area in which government is involved since we in the aggregate are the government.

  15. With apologies to those who prefer fewer words over more complexity:

    As the chaos of a country in decline unfolds there are many factors which share the blame and the best way out of chaos is prioritizing. Listing all of the causes is overwhelming, but identifying the most important may be the best we have “bandwidth” to handle.

    I’ve said before that the reality of very influential social/entertainment media advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing for sale is one critical factor.

    Another that I have discovered is public ignorance about economic systems. One tribal divide is how people react to the word “socialism”, more emotionally or more rationally, out of apparent ignorance of what it even means.

    First all economics is about the organization of collaboration in producing and distributing “wealth”. Wealth is all of the goods and services that are produced that create both desireable results (typically temporary) and waste through bringing the right kinds of labor, energy, raw materials and what are called “means of production” (infrastructure like tools and buildings and computers and networks, and offices, etc) together. As a matter of convenience in accounting those goods and services are monetized in markets. There are many levels of detail in what are collectively called “markets” that divide goods and services into manageable categories for different uses.

    With that as a basis, in capitalistic economic systems the “means of production” are owned, titled to, a relatively few of us (one to say, millions of individuals) in a country. In socialistic economic systems they are are owned by all of the citizens in a country. Capitalist markets virtually all require government regulation to insure satisfaction of all stakeholders like consumers, workers, investors, future humans, tax payers, and communities.

    Virtually all countries in the world today have mixed economomies, both captitalistic and socialistic economic systems allocated to different markets depending mostly on the ability of the market to control costs and innovation through the tool of competition. Markets like law enforcement as an example tend to be satisfied through socialism, markets like smart watches as an example are better served by regulated capitalism.

    There really are no capitalist or socialist countries left in the world after a century of experimentation in various utopian dreams.

    Left wing political thinking worries about the ability of competition to satisfy some of the markets allocated to capitalism, right wing thinking worries more about the ratio of taxes to disretionary spending on individuals favoring more discretionary and less mandatory (taxes).

    Like economic systems monetized wealth, political systems emotionalize those different economic systems as a useful tool in promoting extremes and thereby more loyal followers.

  16. Indiana has a state legislature that cares only about reducing income taxes and regulations on businesses.

  17. I imagine (more than know having only been to Indiana a couple of times) that the Republican Party there has been very successful in using social/entertainment media advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing in emtionalizing the threat of mandatory expenses for taxpayers over discretionary spending for homes and businesses by packaging it as the threat of socialism. In the absence of that people wouldn’t care much whether their money went for taxes or bills as long as their needs got satisfied.

  18. Shiela is correct in her assumption that charters need to be better monitored. For profits come under scrutiny for renting buildings to the charter corporation. Also Vernon state’s that the norm of charter schools may not be better or much better in order to upset the applecart after five years is statistically correct if children of the same same SES are compared.
    Schools that offer alternatives within the public system can do as well as charters offering alternatives. So in retrospect it has more to do with how we are applying our curriculum and the effectiveness of that curriculum.
    In Russian education they have a saying, “repetition is the mother of learning” which means the amount of effort a child puts in the more likely they are to master it. Therefore, The teacher has to be effective in gaining or creating a child’s enthusiasm.
    Teacher training and even proper administrative coaching statistically proves to be one of the biggest gainers in the world of education as increased collaboration improves school efficiency and it shows in the students scores.
    For profits can’t manage this well and that’s why they tend to do no better, because of mismanagement of education funding.

  19. I am too removed from our public schools to discuss the merits of charter schools (vouchers are another matter), but I do believe two things. First, since Indiana legislators only care about aiding the rich and meddling in our private lives, I don’t expect them to provide a good environment for supporting good charter schools or eliminating the bad ones.

    The second is a warning about what we don’t look at – non-charter schools. For background, when I went to high school, Detroit had its “magnet” school to attract the “brightest”, those interested in science or the arts. I stayed in my neighborhood school and discovered that some of the teachers considered us losers and too dumb for them to bother to teach. If a charter school “succeeds”, does a non-charter school decline? Do we even look?

    Peggy – free college was the norm in California in my younger days and their universities were considered some of the best in the country. You can also look at the example of City University of New York (CUNY) which was free for generations. Its alumni include several Nobel laureates, a Supreme Court justice, artists, politicians, writers, and scientists including one of my heroes, Jonas Salk.

    In contrast to post-secondary education, K-12 is highly influenced by local control. States either aid a little, or don’t believe in education. Find a suburb with parents who believe in education and I will show you a top rated school district. Another bit from personal experience. In graduate school, I lived in Highland Park, New Jersey. Highland Park and the town of Edison, New Jersey were both incorporated by parents who wanted better schools for their children. Parental motivation, along with the very important power (money) to have effect are a large reason for our checkerboard quality in K-12 education.

Comments are closed.