Government vs. Commercial

Linda Oyon

Cross-posted from

During his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan said “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Grover Norquist, of the “no new taxes pledge”, doubled down on this line of thinking with his goal to “to get [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This GOP focus on government as the problem helps explain why those out to kill district schools refer to them as “government” schools. After all, “government” is the problem so how can “government” schools be any kind of solution for America’s students?

Yet the truth is that there are great district schools, great charter schools, great private schools and yes, even top-notch home schools. Of course, there are bad examples of all these options. Each option is just one of the tools in our country’s educational tool kit. The most useful tool in the tool kit by far however, (as proven by the 94.3% of American students who use it), is our system of public district schools. Charter schools have been around for twenty-five years, yet the overwhelming “school choice” for American families is still district schools. There is a place for other school choice options, but it shouldn’t be first place. Not in terms of taxpayer funding and not in terms of our nation’s focus.

Most families didn’t make this choice because they had no other options. Rather, they chose to send their children to district schools because those are the schools in their communities, those are the schools that offer a more diverse experience with a wider array of extracurricular programs and, those are the schools that are locally governed and therefore provide recourse when it is needed. The “haters” can refer to these choice schools as “government” schools, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the vast majority of American students, they work. Our community public schools helped make America great and, they continue to be integral in keeping it that way.

For those who insist on referring to our district schools as “government” schools, I say “sticks and stones…”. Don’t be surprised though when I refer charter and private schools as “commercial” schools. After all, the vast majority of charter schools, whether for-profit or non-profit, are business entities. Non-profit doesn’t mean no profit is made or even, that the entity is operating for the common good. It just means that the entity has qualified for federal tax exemptions.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions of commercial. The first is “occupied with or engaged in commerce or work intended for commerce.” Then, there is “being of an average or inferior quality” or “producing artistic work of low standards for quick market success.” There is also, “viewed with regard to profit”, “designed for a large market”, “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business”, and “supported by advertisers.”

Some of these definitions fit commercial schools better than others. We’ve all heard stories about the “fly by night” schools set up for “quick market success” but then fail their students. We also know that some charters are big chains “designed for a large market.” And, there can be no doubt that the corporate reformers with their mantra of “school choice” have been focused on “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business” to ensure a trained workforce to meet their needs.

This focus on developing a trained workforce is just one step away from replacing the idea of citizens in our democracy with consumers focused on nothing more than what’s in it for me? This attitude helps drive the concept of “backpack funding”, where taxpayer dollars for education follow the student and the hell with those left behind.

An encouraging note though in a very crazy election year is that of young people’s response to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. As Harry Boyte writes on Moyers & Company, “championing public goods – from schools to parks, infrastructure to health provision – suggests a generation hungry for the commonwealth.”

I understand parents wanting to ensure the best for their child, but what about the rest of the children? John Dewey, arguably the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

So, send your kids to those “commercial” schools if you want, my money is on our community district schools to prevail at both providing ALL our children well-rounded educations and, at helping ensure our democracy stays strong.

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Linda Lyon retired as a Colonel (Thomas) from the U.S. Air Force in 2007 at Andrews AFB, Maryland where she served as the Mission Support Group Commander (city manager) for a 20,000 person community with 2,000 people under her command. After retirement from the Air Force, she managed a $28 million logistical service contract at the Department of Energy and served as Deputy Program Manager for the $30 million SBInet contract at L-3 Communications. Since moving to Tucson in 2008, she (and her wife Holly) created and ran four annual Wingspan charity golf tournaments bringing in almost $65,000, and she served as the organization’s Director for 14 months. She also served in key positions for five AZ legislative races. Linda is in her second term as a Governing Board member for the Oracle School District, was named Advocate of the Year for 2013 by the Arizona School Board Association and in 2018, served as the Association's President. She'll be the past president in 2019 and will also be serving as the Federal Legislative Chair for the Arizona PTA.


  1. “Non-profit doesn’t mean no profit is made or even, that the entity is operating for the common good. It just means that the entity has qualified for federal tax exemptions.”

    Thank you, Diane, for making that point! So Many here believe that “Non Profit” means “Philanthropic” and are surprised when I point out that the National Rifle Association and the Ku Klux Klan are non profits.

    As to the idea of sending children to government schools rather than commercial schools, I know that there were three major reasons why my children chose to send all of my grandchildren to commercial schools.

    (1) They didn’t care for the way the children were being indoctrinated with leftist politically correct ideas regarding life, government, society, etc. This leftist ideology extended even to the “curriculum” which emphasized things the left considered important, including hostility toward Christianity.

    (2) They didn’t care for the way that the classes tended to ignore the higher achievers and focused on the slower achievers. Also, the disciplinary problems presented by that small percentage of troublemaking students who never seem to be disciplined and cause problems with learning for the others.

    (3) I could afford the tuition to send them where we send them. We were blessed in that I had been rewarded for hard work and focus and I could see no better use of that money than educating my children and grandchildren.

    It is possibly selfish of us to make certain the grandchildren go to high quality commercial schools, but we get only one chance at providing them a decent education and we don’t want to waste it on the “chance” that government schools might do a good job teaching them. Especially in light of the poor performance most government schools demonstrate when evaluated.

    It is all well and good to say that we must worry about ALL the children, but that doesn’t mean we should sacrifice our children in order to satisfy someone else’s definition of what is good for our democracy. And given the poor quality of graduates of that educational system (as evidenced by colleges and universities having to offer remedial courses to new students just to get them up to speed for secondary education) it would be a sacrifice.

    I truly wish every child could have a quality education, but until government schools figure out how to clean up their act, we will continue to have the inferior system we have. And while that persists, so will people choosing commercial schools over commercial…

    • Hi Steve. Thanks for your insight. I am truly not advocating that people should not be able to send their children to commercial schools, merely that my tax dollars shouldn’t pay for it. Those with financial means have always been able to exercise other options, but they did so with their own money. Now, the corporate privateers have cleverly figured out how to funnel BIG money away from district schools to charter and private schools, leaving the majority of our students in schools with ever dwindling resources. THAT IS THE PROBLEM. We shortchange our country’s future when we shortchange the majority of our students. As for “children were being indoctrinated with leftist politically correct ideas regarding life, government, society, etc.”, sorry, I don’t buy it. There are no doubt some teachers who have trouble refraining from coloring their teaching with their own beliefs, but I don’t believe it is a systemic problem. And, I am sure biases exist in the commercial system too.

      Again, I understand parents wanting to “do right” by their kids. BUT, if we are to remain the greatest country on earth, the larger WE needs to ensure we do right by all our kids.

      • First of all, Diane, let me apologize for the harsh tones that seem to creep into my messages on this subject. I doubt intend for it to come across that way, but it seems to do so whenever I start writing about it. If you think I am being harsh, please know that is not my intent. I will try my best tone it down.

        I am not asking you to spend your tax dollars on sending my grandchildren to private schools. I only want to spend my tax dollars on sending my grandchildren to private schools. I don’t think of it as taking away resources from the public schools. If the public school are paid per pupil attending their school, than how can they be shortchanged? They are paid proportionally for the number of students they have. The tax dollars are being provided for the number of students they have.

        As to the leftist indoctrination, we will have to agree to disagree. ;o)

        Thank you for your nice response to my comments!

        • Steve,
          I think you are missing a fundamental point when you use the expression “My tax dollars”. They are not your dollars, after you pay them, any more than the dollars you pay for your car are yours.
          Perhaps more importantly you are making the mistake of thinking that parents are the only people with a stake in the quality of education that children receive. Every one of us, whether we have school age children or not, has a big stake in the quality of education. To put it bluntly, I don’t want poorly educated neighbors! Because we all can gain or lose depending on the quality of education our society has developed a system (public education) with society at large and parents sharing responsibility and power. We take responsibility and exercise power through a democratic system of governance.

          • Bill, I agree about the fungibility of money. I was responding to Diane’s use of possessive pronouns with her reference to “our tax dollars”. You are correct that there is no such thing as “my” tax dollars or “your” tax dollars. There are only tax dollars.

            Regarding the development of public education in order to ensure a good education system took place in our country…what happens if that public education begins to fail at it’s job? Back as early as 1966, Time Magazine had a very famous cover story entitled, “Why Johnny Can’t Read”. The failure of our public education system goes back that far. I think that was the beginning of the problem, but it has only gotten worse with the passage of time.

            If the public education system is failing and continuing to decline, what are we to do? Parent’s are doing something wherever they…they are voting with their feet and placing their children in private or parochial schools, or homeschooling them. The education industry has done a very poor job policing itself and the public has lost faith in it’s ability to correct the problem. The education industry is too rigid, bloated and stuck in it’s ways to correct itself. Asking for more money is the only solution they have and that is a failure from the starting line. There was a time when any request for more education funding was approved by the voters. Today, that is not the case. The voters have become tired of pouring good money after bad.

            Here in Arizona, the “1-2-3” proposition was supposed to solve some problems, but the very next day after it passed educators came forward saying it wasn’t enough. It is NEVER enough. If you don’t want uneducated neighbors, you need to honestly assess what is going on with public education because you are not likely to get there from here.

          • I have to agree with much of what you say, but not with, “Asking for more money is the only solution they have and that is a failure from the starting line.” More money, probably a lot more, seems to not have been tried in Arizona. The state that spends the most per child, Massachusetts, has the best results; the states that spend the least, Arizona for example, have the worst results.
            What I don’t understand is why so many people are willing to spend extra to get a better car, TV, restaurant meal, golf club, or second home but not to have a better educated society.

          • Bill, the connection between spending and pupil accomplishment has long been debunked. Decades of increased taxpayer spending per student in U.S. public schools has not improved student or school outcomes from that education, and a new study finds that throwing money at the system is simply not tied to academic improvements. The study from the CATO Institute shows that American student performance has remained poor, and has actually declined in mathematics and verbal skills, despite per-student spending tripling nationwide over the same 40-year period.

            Spending in Washington, DC, is about as much as it gets in this country and their students succeed at near the bottom. North and South Dakota spend considerably less per pupil and their students do very well in terms of achievement. Arizona does poorly, but I don’t think it is so much a function of funding as I do demographics. On the one hand, educators here insist that English as a second language condemns many of our students to lifetimes of failure in our education system and we need to allocate vast sums of money to bringing these students up to speed with special course and instruction. Yet dare to suggest that part of the reason Arizona schools do so poorly is because we have such a high percentage of English as a second language student enrolled in our schools and the educators bristle with anger and call you a racist. It is one of the reasons educators can’t get the job done…political correctness prevents them ever identifying the problem, much less solving it.

            As to why people will invest more money in cars, houses, watches, etc….I think the answer is fairly simple. People can actually see where their extra money is going. With education it is hard to see where it is going because, as I said before, there is never enough and the plate is always being passed for more. After a while, people who concerned look for other solutions to education. I find it interesting that private and parochial schools can usually do a better job educating their pupils for LESS money than public schools can. Something is wrong in our public school system, and until someone besides the education industry takes charge of what happens in our schools, it will be the same thing over and over, ad nauseum.

          • If money doesn’t matter, why do private schools tout their small class sizes, excellent teachers and wonderful facilities? All of these take money. I’ll see your CATO Institute report with a recently released Shanker Institute report that says: “Does money Matter? Yes. On average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes.” Here’s the link:

            Yes, demographics AND more importantly socio-economic status greatly impact achievement results. Poverty is the single greatest challenge to education achievement. And, commercial schools don’t educate anywhere near the numbers of poor students or English language learners, or special needs, if any at all.

            Finally, commercial schools DO NOT educate students for less money that district schools. The $5,000 or so the state gives to students in the form of vouchers does not even begin to cover the cost of private schools, the average cost of which in Arizona is in the $10,000 range. PLEASE Steve, learn more about our district schools.

          • One of the things you message echoes is what I have always said: If you need a study to support your position, do a Google search, there is one out there somewhere. ;o)

            In all seriousness, it is very hard to know what the answer is because there are so many ways to approach the question. Money, properly used, CAN matter. But most often more money just means more money allocated without any changes in a poorly performing system system, which is just good money going after bad.

            Thank you – sincerely – for at least (perhaps grudgingly?) ackowledging that demographics do impact the quality of education student receive. That is far more honesty than I normally see in Educators. We can disagree on how much it impacts it, but it would be wrong to ignore it.

            I promise you I will learn more about our public school system.

          • Again Steve, district schools are not failing. On the whole, commercial schools do NO better than our district schools. That’s why district advocates are up in arms. If commercial schools did better across the board we’d have no argument. Oh by the way, district schools don’t “police themselves.” Districts are held to very high standards of accountability and transparency. They have annual audits publicly reported and the AZ Auditor General also reviews them annually for efficiency and effectiveness. Commercial schools aren’t included in this report. And, because the state continues to push responsibility for education funding down to the local level in terms of bonds, overrides and tax credits, voters increasingly have DIRECT control over the education funding they provide. In the bigger picture, they control education funding by the lawmakers they elect. In recent polling, 74% of Arizona voters say that our state does not provide enough funding for public education. As for Prop 123, it was only 70% of money already owed to the districts by a voter mandate and court order and, it was really only half of what was required to move Arizona up just one notch from 48th in per pupil funding in the nation to 47th. That’s how far behind we are.

          • When I say the public school system is failing, I should be more precise…the public school is failing to meet the expectations of tens of thousands of parents as to what they expect for their children. If the public schools were succeeding at meeting these expectations, then charter and parochial schools wouldn’t be such a problem.

            Some public schools are performing extremely good. Many are performing rather badly. Even if ALL the charter and parochial school funding magically came back into the public school system, that wouldn’t change.

            I have read that statistic of 74% of Arizonans think the public school system doesn’t get enough funding. I have also seen 67%, 54%, 61%, 52%, et. al. If I believe any of those figures, then funding propositions should breeze through the voting process and be approved. Years ago, that is what happened. Something changed over the years and public school funding is not a sure thing anymore. My anecdotal experience is that public school funding loses far more often than it wins. So where is the 74%?? I think their vote speaks louder than what tell a pollster.

            I realize that private schools are not subject to auditing like public schools are. If we are talking strictly about financial accounting for the funding provided, then I think that is a mistake. Public funds should be available for public scrutiny. On the other hand, if the audit is more of a educational curriculum compliance audit, then I might say that is part of the problem. Perhaps – if that is the case – public schools are put at a disadvantage by having to utilize a failing curriculum while private schools are not.

          • And some commercial schools are great and some are really bad. As for the 74%, I suspect that some voters are not connecting the need for more public school funding with the need for different candidates.Partisan politics are strong in this state and most candidates, whether or not they are pro-public education, say they are when they are in campaign mode. Once they get into office, they toe the party line of education privatization. Unfortunately, the voters have a short memory so they get away with it. The privatizers have also been successful at selling the narrative that public schools are failing and some parents are all too happy to buy it.

            As for the auditing, I am talking about both financial and educational achievement results. Private schools don’t have to disclose the results they achieve with our taxpayer dollars. That’s just wrong.

        • Hi Steve, A portion of that which districts are paid for every child go to fixed costs such as those to keep the lights on, heat the buildings, provide water for the toilets, etc. They also go to pay teachers – a teacher can’t be laid off just because three children leave the district to go to a private school. This year, a 1,200 student school was opened in Preoria within 2 miles of 10 A or B rated district schools with capacity to teach those students. From a taxpayer perspective, how does this make sense? We are paying for both the district schools and the charter, all of which have “excess” capacity. And oh by the way, the charter school gets taxpayer dollars to help build and if they go out of business, they own the building and the land. What a deal!

          • Diane, when you lament that students leaving the public school system and going to a private school takes with them the funding provided for fixed costs, such as infrastructure, utilities, etc., you are ignoring the fact that the private school has the same infrastructure fixed costs as well. I don’t see why the need of the public school is greater than the need of the private school for this type of funding. In both cases the fixed costs support the student where they are going to school. That is the purpose of the funding. The same holds true for the cost of teachers.

            When you told me that public funding is used to help build private schools, I was perturbed by that. While I can think of a couple of reasons why that might be logical, the issue of ownership of the land and facilities going to the owners of the private school does not make sense to me. I will have to research it some more to find out what happens and why it happens. Thank you for letting me know about that.

            As to excess capacity, it might not be a good “taxpayer” decision, but it appears to be a good “business” decision. I suspect there was a demand for a charter school from the parents and a charter answered to demand.

            You know, Diane, it isn’t always just scholastics that causes parents to take their children out of public schools. Sometimes it is the “discipline” factor. Public schools have a poor track records at disciplining students. I think it isn’t that public schools don’t want to have discipline in their schools, I just think there are so many rules and regulations – and let’s not forget litigation happy parents – that they can’t discipline unruly students effectively. Whatever the reason, discipline is often not very good in public school and that is another resaon parent vote with their feet and leave.

          • Steve, private schools are commercial enterprises. They may very well truly care about educating their students, but they are definitely in business to make money. In that average Arizona private school tuition is in the neighborhood of $10,000, they are already factoring in their operating expenses to ensure they can cover costs and take home profit. I am betting in most cases it costs more to operate a private school than it does a district school because they recognize that funding does make a difference in their ability to attract students. But, the huge difference is that private schools shouldn’t be using public taxpayer dollars to make that profit. They charge tuition and can accept only those students they want…not those like English language learners and special needs students that are more expensive to teach.

            When you say excess capacity might be a good business decision but not taxpayer decision, I have to ask you why we are allowing our taxpayer dollars to go to support business decisions versus that which makes sense from a taxpayer’s viewpoint?

            You don’t cite any references in your assertion that “public schools have a poor track record at discipling students” but if that is the case, might it not be that private schools are selective about who they admit? And yet, 85% of Arizona’s students attend public district schools inspire of Arizona’s reputation as a school choice leader. I think parents are voting with their feet and they are firmly planted in our district schools.

  2. It appropriate to stop calling charter schools public schools. They are not. They are privately operated schools with much less accountability, receiving public money. Commercial schools are a correct name. And the concept that somehow taxpayer money being used for religious private schools via tuition organizations is somehow constitutional if we just launder it enough and call them “empowerment”accounts is equally wrong. They should be called “TLAs”, Taxpayer Laundered Accounts.

    • Love it Frances! Laundering is EXACTLY what is happening to our taxpayer dollars that are used to pay for private and parochial schools. How this is deemed constitutional is akin to the “corporations are people” argument.

      • Linda, remember that when you say “our” taxpayer dollars, you are referring to dollars that also belong to the parents choosing to send their children to the private and parochial schools. Why should they not be able to use that portion of the taxpayer dollars designated for their children to educate them the way they choose? Plus, there are those like me that have no children in the system, yet I pour quite a bit of money into school funding through my property taxes each year. I don’t complain about it because I consider it an investment in the future, but why shouldn’t some of my funding go to private and parochial schools if they provide as good or better an education as the public schools?

        The truth is that public education is scared to death of the competition. Given a choice, most parents would abandon public education for private and parochial schools if they could. Wherever they have offered vouchers, there has been a mass migration from the public schools into the private sector. Yes, some public schools have managed to do well, but they are notable because they are the exceptions.

        I don’t mean to be harsh, but at some point in the future, if parents have their way, public education could become the schools of last resort. These would be the schools where students who cannot be taught, whether from inability to learn or unwillingness to learn, are taught/warehoused until age 14, or 16, 0r 18, or whatever age we deem appropriate. This would allow the other children to learn and grow intellectually. Currently, of course, we are caught up in the mantra of “no child left behind”, which means that more children are being left behind in our efforts to teach the unteachable, leaving the children who are struggling to learn to figure it out on their own, or, worse, to learn from their more successful peers.

        I apologize for being so negative, but we have a failing system of education that educators are incapable of fixing. That is why parents are fleeing the system whenever they can. And that is why so many people do not trust the educators to solve the problems. Each “new” program, each “new” idea, is destined to fail because it is simply a rehash of earlier programs and ideas. Since educators can’t fix it, other people with a vested interest (their children) are trying to fix it. It is a tough fight, but my money is on the parents…

        • Hi Steve. You aren’t just negative, you are wrong. Many parents choose public schools because they are the schools in their communities and they offer a diverse experience. Public education (district schools) are NOT “scared to death” of the competition. Districts recognize that some competition is healthy and makes all schools better. What is NOT healthy, is the siphoning of limited funding away from the schools where over 80% of our students are educated to for-profit & private schools where there is little to no accountability and transparency of taxpayer dollars. There has NOT been a “mass migration” away from district schools in favor of commercial schools. After some 25 years of charters & school choice in Arizona, over 80% of our students still attend district schools. There are no “unteachable” children. Yes, there are those who have difficulty learning, sometimes much difficulty, but that is the challenge that district schools meet every single day. But district schools also have wonderful advanced placement classes to encourage gifted students. Yes, district schools must teach all who come through their doors and they do that well, against all odds. Every year, when U.S. News and World Report issues its “best high schools” report, Arizona has district schools among the top 10. We do NOT have a failing system of education that educators are incapable of fixing!! We are failing our professional educators who continue to do great works in spite of the challenges they face. A recent poll showed that 63% of Arizona’s voters oppose using taxpayer dollars for private schools. DUHHHHH! Pubic dollars should go to public schools with locally elected governing boards who are responsive to local voters. We can fix what is wrong with our district schools but we must collectively focus on the problems instead of trying to divert attention and resources to the latest “shiny object.” And oh by the way, the reason some of your funds shouldn’t go to private and parochial schools is 1) we don’t know that they do better because they are not transparent about, or accountable for, their results; 2) again, public monies should go to public schools; 3) ever hear about separation of church and state; 4) “backpack funding” (where the money follows the child) causes an insidious draining of resources from our district schools. It is NOT a one-for-one. With every student who leaves the district, a portion of the fixed cost resources leaves with them.

          I appreciate your being engaged, but really encourage you to learn more about the great things happening in our district schools. I can provide more info if you’d like.

          • Linda, thank you for the well written and thoughtful response to my group of messages regarding charter and parochial schools. Your responses were so exhaustive I may overlook some points I wanted to repond to, but I will try my best not to do so.

            I agree that some Arizona schools rate very highly for their delivery of qulity educations, but most do not. Most deliver mediocre to poor education services to their students and these are the students I worry about.

            As to the “mass migration” away from the schools, I may be guilty of hyperbole there. However, even at 20%, that is a significant number fleeing the public school system for the private school world.

            As to there being “no unteachable children” we will just have to disagree. Such children do exist. If you have not encountered any of them, you are fortunate.

            I saw the poll where 63% of the public does not like using public funding for private schools. I also saw where the poll was criticised for wording its questions so that it sounded as if the tax dollars were going directly to private schools, just as it does to public schools. It did not describe the real scenario whereby a student takes a proportional share of the funding with him/her when they go to the private school. It is a subtle, but important, difference.

            There are advantages to not having a central governing board watching what a school does and forcing it to do some things it wouldn’t ordinarily do. A lot of the things that the public schools are forced to do are the very things that contribute to its failure. Politically correct trends and socially correct “good ideas” that dos not directly relate to the educational experience are not things that are necessarily good for students.

            I will try and learn more about the public education system, as you suggest.

  3. I’m beginning to think that segregation plays a big role in creating many of the problems the country faces, and I don’t mean just racial segregation. Our society is increasingly segregated into wealthy and poor, colored and white, Democrat and Republican, male and female, straight and gay, handicapped and able bodied, aristocrat and proletariat,…. In the context of this piece segregation of our youth into many different kinds of schools eventually leads to narrow, selfish, limited vision, and poorly educated adults. We seem to be willing to try segregating our schools in an effort to find a way to improve the educational experience. So far we have no evidence that any of the attempts works any better than having a single community school that every school age child attends. I think it’s time to re-integrate our schools and try what seems to work in other parts of our society—throw more money at them!

    • You are so right Bill! Segregation in our schools is the highest it has ever been since the early 1960s and it adds to the polarization we are seeing in our democracy and, the decline of our communities.

      • The current segregation is different from the segregation we saw in the 1960s and earlier. The current version is generally voluntary and reflects the desires of the individuals involved. That makes it a much more insidious and dangerous form of segregation in my opinion.

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