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Discussion on Public Education Funding - Kang vs. Kodos
Jun 222009

Entries from this blog are cross-posted to my Facebook account. My recent post on funding public education generated an interesting discussion there. I promised those involved that I would share their comments with others so that they might be answered by folks with different and/or better arguments than I. The following is a slightly edited version of the conversation, presented for your perusal and response.

NPB: “I can’t afford the private schools around here (they’re worse than some college tuitions)! It’s public or bust! 🙂

“I do think we need public schools – there’s NO way most parents could afford to pay for private schools… the amount of school tax we pay doesn’t even come close to a private education… at least around here.”

I believe cost of private education would drop significantly if private educators weren’t forced to compete against a government monopoly.

NPB: “I like the libertarian ideal… but that’s an ideal that would still lead to inequality – you’d get the quality of education your family could afford. In many ways, it works that way in the public schools (good schools tend to be in higher income areas), but the success of the school also has a lot to do with the community investment in it. There are great, public inner city schools with amazingly bright kids who come from families who care abuot education.

“I still say you can get an education anywhere… if you want to.”

Since I do not believe equality in education is a natural right, I’m OK with that.

I have no objection to voluntary collective purchasing. There’s no reason the free market would forbid groups of families from voluntarily sharing the costs of education. What I object to is involuntary sharing. However noble the goal (even educating the next generation), taking from the fruits of some people’s labor to purchase some good or provide some service for other people is still theft and still wrong.

NPB: “I guess it depends on your perpspective… I’d like to think it does me some good that the population is slightly educated and productive.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that thought. I strongly support your right and others’ to freely contribute to private businesses and charitable institutions to make that possible. 🙂

NBP: “There’s always homeschooling, although I think those folks still have to pay the school tax too, right? Not sure on that one…”

Yes, they do. Hence my lamentation that even if I homeschool I cannot opt out of paying for public education.

NBP: “I still can’t imagine how it would be possible to fund a good school say for poor/rural people who are paying the tuition. How would you buy supplies, pay for a decent building, and pay good teachers to be there? Just genuinely curious, I’m no economics guru…

“As for having standards, we all know how well those are usually upheld… ;-)”

Private charity would do it, just like it used to before compulsory public education. Also, consider the possibility that not everyone needs K-12 book learning. Many would be better served by trade schools and/or apprenticeship programs.

NBP: “You really think the cost would drop? Why? If they have families that WILL pay the tuition, why would they drop it? For example, most private schools around here are $20,000 a year.. some more, some less (hell, we’re paying $10,000 just for Carsyn to go to preschool! Which I think is nuts!) and people pay it. Why do they charge so much? Because that’s what it takes to run a great private school around here. If you pay less, you get less. Take Catholic schools for example, (at least with the ones I’m familiar with)… many try to keep their tuitions low and affordable, and what they get in return are uncertified teachers (mostly) and a lack of depth and breath in their programs.”

Most of the problems you describe are consequences of government monopolization of education. In a free education market, prices would reflect willingness and desire to pay. With an absolutely enormous pool of consumers to serve, education providers would be moved by market forces to offer affordable education to as large a market as possible. If you have any doubt that a free market could provide education, observe how microelectronics have become affordable and ubiquitous. Profit motive promotes efficiency and achievement.

NBP: “I guess I’m also of the mindset that education is in everyone’s best interest so we don’t have morons running around and MORE crime.”

I am not convinced that ending public education would increase crime. As for morons, observe that far more people vote for American Idol contestants than presidential candidates, to say nothing of legislators at any level.

NBP: “I’m someone who benefitted from living in a school district that had more funds and more interest in education than most. I’m also biased since I enjoyed my public school.. :-)”

I was reasonably satisfied with my public school education only for as long as I did not ask whether it could have been better. Remember, government monopolies and oppressive, anticompetitive regulations are directly opposed to efficiency and impetus for improvement. A captive audience can’t vote with its wallet or feet.

EM: “Well, I agree that public schools are frequently poorly run and provide little value.

“I’m interested to know what your opinion of charter schools is?

“I currently work with kids who attend one of the worst urban school districts in the United States…. I’m told that the DC Public Schools, which have somewhere around 50,000 students now, have the highest volume of special education litigation in the nation, even though it’s not even an especially large district. So, yeah.

“But the thing is that most parents in the District of Columbia could not pay for a private education for their children. They just couldn’t. Many of them struggle to even provide basic needs for their children like food, housing, and clothing. Asking them to pay for education is simply unrealistic. And saying that private charity would step in to fill all the gaps is, I think, a bit disingenous. 

“Back in the days before a public education system was common, poor children were frequently not educated at all. That gave them very little opportunity to better the circumstances into which they were born… and I think that closing off the opportunity for productivity and prosperity to an entire class of citizens is quite harmful for a society. It is likely only to breed more desperation and resentment of the rich.

“I’m not saying the current state of public education in America is ideal — but I do think that providing a basic education to every single resident benefits our society over all, and that the best way to assure everyone has at least a basic education is through a public school system.”

It’s not the government’s place to educate. Period. Government should only exist to secure rights. Formal education is not a right.

Putting government in a position to remedy inequalities (something proper to private institutions such as the Church) is dangerous. A government big enough to give you everything is big enough to take everything away.

Proponents of public education are well-intentioned more often than not. They are, I believe, mistaken in believing that the state is the best entity for educating the poor.

JB: “A characteristic of the education ‘business’ is that the client (who pays for it) and the consumer (who benefits from it) are different people (at least at the basic levels). Regardless of who the provider ends up being, one has to stop and consider that the end goal is to provide each child with the education they need to take care of themselves once they reach adulthood.”

I would dispute the assertion that public education achieves that goal, at least not well.

JB: “The one decision nobody makes for themselves is choosing their parents, and education plays a role in leveling the playing field. It enables those that start life at a disadvantage (due to their parents’ lack of resources) to eventually improve their own quality of life.”

I do not trust the state with the power and responsibility of leveling ANY playing field. C.f. “The Trees” by Rush.

JB: “I believe the fundamental conflict of interest in the concept of a public education system is that the government becomes both the client (by pooling financial resources from taxpayers) and the provider (financing schools with those resources).

“I agree with the notion of allowing providers (schools) to compete, but there’s a need to determine whether the quality of their service is good enough for the consumers (are the students needs met?). Nobody should be allowed to operate a school that doesn’t meet minimum standards of quality, in the same way nobody is allowed to operate a restaurant without meeting minimum standards of hygiene. The regulator (whoever authorizes schools) and the provider must be different entities.”

I could not disagree more. Who regulates the regulators? Standards are are diverse as people and their points of view. Let the market be the regulator. If parents are satisfied with the education their children receive and they succeed, those schools will succeed. Poor educators will be forced out of the market as producers of a crappy product.

JB: “I think is an open question whether the pooling of resources is necessary (i believe it is, i don’t see another way of caring for those born in unfortunate conditions), and at what level to do it considering that more money buys (generally) better things and it is not fair play to perpetuate socio-economic differences.”

It’s not the state’s job to make life fair. As Christians we can strive to help the unfortunate, but we must be free to do so free of government interference or monopolization.

Why do any of you believe that 1) it is a proper duty of the state to make life fair, undo inequalities, or act as a charitable institution, 2) the state can be trusted with such awesome power, and 3) the state is capable of doing those things with efficiency and without corruption?

I believe private education is expensive because they face market interference from the state. Free competition drives prices down.

EM: “Do you truly believe that if public education vanished tomorrow, private charities would fill all of the gaps? Before the days of public education, that wasn’t the case — think about how many people were illiterate and received no formal education in the U.S. back then, or how many people across the world who live in countries without functioning public education systems are illiterate today (e.g. literacy rates around 50 percent, or lower, in much of Africa and parts of South Asia).

“I don’t see how we can expect that private charity would step up to the plate and fill all the gaps. It didn’t before, and it doesn’t in countries across the world today. Whether education is considered a right or not, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to have a bunch of illiterate citizens.”

People have become dependent on the system. They need to be weaned off it.

Do you really think public education has had a positive impact proportionate to the vast sums of money poured into it? I don’t.

Private charities didn’t educate the poor? Did the Church do nothing? I find that hard to believe.

Please answer my numbered questions.

EM: “Whatever private charities were doing, they clearly weren’t doing enough, and aren’t doing enough across the world today. Unfortunately, I have very little confidence that would change. And for all of the failings of the public education system (remember, I deal with the DC Public Schools nearly daily), I would prefer a populace with basic literacy skills — the ability to read to complete basic tasks of everyday living, the ability to write basic information, and the ability to sign one’s name. Considering the high rates of illiteracy worldwide (and in the US for quite some time), I’d say that private charity hasn’t even been meeting that most basic need.”

JB: “To answer Eric’s questions:

“1) it is a proper duty of the state to make life fair, undo inequalities, or act as a charitable institution,
– it is a self-evident human right to pursue happiness, how can anyone do that starting from a position of disadvantage without a system that provides opportunities to improve (and education IS necessary to compete in this day and age) escapes me.
– ‘state’ can mean different things… is a ‘free market’ even possible in practice, if there’s nothing to prevent supposed competitors to join forces and collaborate to take advantage of consumers?

“2) the state can be trusted with such awesome power,
– it can’t, that’s why you need to establish checks and balances so different parts of the “state” are motivated to accomplish what they have to

“and 3) the state is capable of doing those things with efficiency and without corruption?
‘state’ is just an organization of people, any organization can be efficient if well administered

“corruption is always a possibility, as is any crime. people choose not to commit a crime either because they have a moral standard or because getting away with it is impossible and they don’t way to receive the punishment… since people can’t be trusted to be moral, corruption needs to be punished to the point of discouragement… if that can be done, there’s no reason it can’t be done in a ‘state’ setting…

“the problem is not absence or presence of ‘state’, is the design of such ‘state’ (big vs. small, efficient vs. inefficient), can you prove the impossibility of having an efficient state that serves the people?”

JL: “Public education should be funded at the local level(ie county). At no point should the feds have anything to do with it. Its too bad people ignore the 10th amendment.”

JB: “this is a case in which ‘subsidiarity’ must be carefully implemented… a rich county will have better education than a poor one if resources are pooled at the county level… if you don’t want the feds involved, what about the state level?”

An interesting comment on the blog version of this note here.

CP: “First off, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is hardly any difference between government and a business. They both provide services, ostensibly for the benefit of society. I’m as skeptical of government as any business, since you’ve got self-interested humans in both. This self-interest is the key. An executive or mayor will more often than not act in their own self-interest. For the executive, he wants a higher position and higher salary. For the major, he wants re-election (salary) and potentially moving up the political totem pole (higher position, see Luke Ravenstahl). Both will be motivated to look after their own interest.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that that governments and businesses are equally likely to be self-serving. In that case, wouldn’t a monopoly of production be problematic for consumers? Wouldn’t competition increase the likelihood of consumer satisfaction? A diffuse and decentralized system should increase the mean time between failures.

Furthermore, no single education system can please every consumer all of the time, or even most consumers most of the time. If there is great demand for education, the market will bear many producers and consumers can “vote” for their favorites with their wallets. As it stands, every consumer must pay into the public education monopoly and can only avail himself of private or home education at additional cost and/or pains to himself. Your vote of no confidence is meaningless because the monopoly gets your money anyway.

JB: “Thus, the problem is not wheter education is public or private, but that what we now have as ‘public education’ is a monopoly. I believe there are options to that, like having the government just collecting resources and then using them to pay for private education. Eric also wants the rigth to opt out of the system, but the issue is wheter one sees paying an ‘education tax’ as equal to paying for their own kids education only, or a contribution to a well-educated society overall.

I see a “well-educated society” as neither my responsibility, a right, nor a power granted to the federal government by the Constitution. I want out because I don’t think socialized education is very good, because socialized education is unconstitutional, and because a supposed right to education does not supercede my right to keep the fruits of my labors.

JB: “Your right to keep the fruits of your labors… so why you don’t refuse on principle to pay any taxes? if you pay taxes, what are legitimate uses for them?

“and just for the sake of argument, since all men are created equal, and they all have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, how can they be guaranteed such rights in a system that would allow them to start life poor and not give them access to anything unless they work for it? No human being is born being able to care for itself!”

We all all have the right to freely pursue happiness. We are not guaranteed to find it in this life.

I pay taxes because the risk of not doing so is greater than the rewards. Also, I render unto Caesar what is his – or at least what he thinks is his and can take by force.

That which is immoral may nevertheless be legal. Income tax is an example (IMHO).

JB: “You are not guaranteeing to find happiness, but in order to be able to freely pursue it, what do you need?”

To freely pursue happiness, I must be secure in my life, liberty, and property.

JB: “what if you start life with no liberty or property?”

Everyone starts with self-ownership (or from the Christian perspective, self-stewardship). As for liberty, what are you getting at?

JB: “i think your liberty for practical purposes is limited by your property… can you really decide what to do with yourself for the moment you are born? i don’t think so… to even survive (life), somebody must take care of you (e.g., your parents)… the decisions you can make later in life (liberty) are limited from what those caring for you can give you… if i don’t have stuff of my own, i should at least be able to produce by myself… it is better to teach someone how to fish that giving a fish, so i think education is more necessary than property (IMHO)”

Compulsory formal education is superfluous for teaching one how to fish. 😉

Seriously, though, what about trade schools and apprenticeship?

It’s not the government’s responsibility to give anyone the means to produce. It should merely prevent others from interfering with one’s freedom to pursue and use one’s own means on production.

To have the right to life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness does not entail government action to make life fair (as if that were possible).