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The Illogical Funding of Public Education - Kang vs. Kodos
Jun 112009

I’m not a fan of public education. I don’t like seeing children indoctrinated into blind faith and belief that we can’t be trusted to run our own lives and our wise and generous government should instead be obediently trusted with omnipotence and omnipresence in order to grace us with its omnibenevolence. Nor do think the best instruction bureaucracy can buy does a particularly good job at educating children. Consequently, if I have any real choice in the matter, my children will either be homeschooled or go to a private school. If only I could also opt out of paying for public education I’d rather not use…

But I digress. The point I really wanted to make when I started writing this post is that public education is funded by horrible compromise measures that cannot even please the socialists who want it so badly. I see some possible solutions to the problem, all of which are unfortunately politically leprous.

Scientia potentia est – Knowledge is power. This is the justification for socialized education; it’s “power to the people”. At some later date I might discuss how successful public education has or hasn’t been in empowering the people, especially in opposition to the government. For now, it is enough to say that public education is regarded by statists (not just the Left) as a positive right. Consequently, since those elected to run the state hold this belief, everyone must contribute to its maintenance according to his ability so that financial aid may be used toward the education of each according to his need. I won’t argue against the validity or wisdom of such beliefs here, though I may do so when I have more time. I will merely state for now the obvious fact that I and many others disagree and wish to opt ourselves and our children out of the public education system.

If libertarians had their way, there would be no public education system or its attendant bloated bureacratic machinations. Education would be provided by competing producers to satisfy the desires of consumers at prices determined by supply, demand, and consumer satisfaction. Such an ideal solution seems unlikely to happen any time in the foreseeable future, so I shall say no more about it.

If there must be a public education system, how should it be funded and how should it operate with respect to the free market? To answer that, we must first take a look at how it’s currently funded. My understanding (please correct me if I’m wrong) is that states fund school districts via income and/or property taxes and the federal government, thorugh the Department of Education, provides aid to states in proportion to need. From what I have seen, this arrangement is one that cannot please anyone. Opponents to public education are forced into paying for it anyway (and do so in proportion to their wealth), and proponents are unable to ensure equal education opportunities for all students without regard for socioeconomic status. Proponents surely cannot be pleased that students in richer districts (those whose tax bases are wealthier) have better and more resources than poorer districts.¬†

The current system is neither socialist nor capitalist, neither equitable nor voluntary. What, then, are the solutions? Before answering that, I believe it is worth considering for a moment the tension between proponents and opponents of public education. I do not mean the philosophical and theoretical economic disputes hinted at above. Rather, I am interested in the simple fact that there are people who wish to opt out at all and statists’ objections to letting them.

Presumably, opponents want out because they are compelled by principle and/or by the pragmatic deduction that the system is a waste of time, money, and human resources. They don’t want to take anything from the system, so why should they give anything to it? On the other hand, proponents claim that everyone benefits from an educated populous, and therefore everyone should help pay for its education, and/or if people were permitted to out out, too many would do so and take the system’s financial viability with them.

Isn’t that interesting? We should be compelled by governmental force to contribute to the public education system, whether we directly benefit from it or not, because if we were not, too many of us would leave and the system would be fiscally unsustainable! To put it another way, if forced to compete in the free market against private educators, the public education would fail and go out of business or perhaps need a massive government bailout to surivive. Shouldn’t such a fear tell us something important about public education? Shouldn’t the argument, “People must not be permitted to opt out of public education because too many would” be a clear indicator of consumer preference, if not a direct criticism of public education’s value, per se?

I’d rather no public education, but if we must have it, I’d like to see it compete fairly in the free market. Those individuals who wish to participate in or simply contribute to the public education system should be free to do so. Those who do not should be free to opt out, with the proviso that should they change their minds later they be required to pay back taxes into the system for non-contributing years. If public education is really all it’s cracked up to be, it’ll thrive in the face of private competition. Unfortunately, I doubt that such a suggestion would be politically viable.

Another solution would be to match public education’s eqalitarian mission with appropriate socialist funding. That is, instead of allowing those with large incomes or high property values to fund adequate education for their districts’ children while those with small incomes or low property values fund inadequate education for their districts’ children, pool all taxpayer contributions at the state or national level and disburse funds according to each district’s needs. Such a funding scheme would harmonize the egalitarian ideal of empowering the people through education with the socialist ideal of “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need”. This solution could be employed regardless of whether the state monopolizes education or competes fairly in the free market. This, too is unlikely to be politically viable.

Lastly, I would like to briefly address school vouchers, which are loathed by many on the Left and lauded by many on the Right. I see them as no solution at all. They in no way address the flawed funding system for public education and offer opponents a half-hearted “gift” from the generous state – of my that was rightfully ours and not its in the first place.

In conclusion, I offer a plea to our nation’s elected representatives at the state and national levels. Either fund public education in a manner logically consistent with its mission, let it compete in the free market however it is funded, or eliminate it altogether. Anything less is repugnant to socialists, libertarians, and any consumer (parent or student) with the sense to see it for the disastrous compromise that it is.