Monday, January 10, 2011

Public Education

Should I be forced to pay for public education even though I don’t have kids?  A friend recently posed this question to me, and I haven’t found a compelling enough reason to answer him in the affirmative. It’s an interesting question, and it perhaps implies that public education would suffer should only childbearing parents bear the cost burden of education.  If this implication is correct, I wonder how this came to be.  Nevertheless, let’s assume that this is the case, and let’s see if we can work through this.

Part of me wants to believe the benefits of publicly funded education outweigh the costs.  Society is better off if our kids can read, write, add, and subtract.  Highly educated societies are shown to be more productive, healthier, and wealthier.  Therefore, I do think compulsory publicly funded education does offer some credible benefits.

I can think of a few negatives of this scenario.  First, just as my friend proposed – should folks with zero kids subsidize those with kids?  Seems immoral of the state to confiscate money from Joe to help pay for Suzie’s kids sans Joe’s consent.  If you find this okay because Joe’s money is going for education, suppose the state confiscated Joe’s money to subsidize senior citizens nursing home care (or any other activity the state desires).  I’m sure there are other objections, but this one rates high.

Now let’s pretend education isn’t publicly funded, but directly through user fees.  Folks aren’t taxed in advance by the state, so everyone starts whole.  Those well-off parents who value education will put their kids in school.  I want to believe this is the majority of cases.  Now, what to do with the margins.  Some folks will be unable to afford school, but charities such as non-profits and churches can offer scholarships to many of these.  I’m sure other philanthropic ventures would be created to assist the needy.  No need for state intervention through taxation.

Under this scenario, I believe education would look very different.  First, it would be slimmer, focusing more on teachers/students and less on administration.  Would a school bus armada exist?  Not sure, but not to the extent we have now.  School sports would take on a different shape too.  Maybe we wouldn’t have school-sponsored sports.  

I’m sure there are some problems I have overlooked.  We can talk about them as they are brought up (this of course assumes someone will read this and take time to comment).  On balance, I believe the potential for higher quality education exists under this scenario.  However, I’m sure the administrators and teacher’s union beg to differ.


  1. Tax dollars fund all sorts of programs we may or may not agree with. For example, I oppose funding unnecessary Iraq. In some ways I feel (with little choice) as if I am contributing to the unnecessary death and destruction of others.

    Being the referenced friend, I actually have little to no issue paying my part for other family's children to get a public education. As you point out in your post I find it better for society. However, I also agree and do see your point about the state taking my money to subsidize public education.

    One huge irony of the this subject to me is government also provides tax deductions for those that have children. In some ways that leaves me with an even larger burden for their personal decision to have children. Public education, mortgage and child deductions, marriage benefits are almost like government is actively encouraging certain behaviors of its citizens.

    The main reason I referenced my burden of paying for other family's kids to go to school is that I never hear them complain that this is somehow unfair. I can only assume that it is perfectly okay because it benefits them. Ironically, some of these same parents are mad as heck at possibility of government providing universal health care. How learning to speak French ranks over treating someone dying of breast cancer is beyond me. It seems hypocritical.

  2. Eddie,

    You are most definitely right when you say "Public education, mortgage and child deductions, marriage benefits are almost like government is actively encouraging certain behaviors of its citizens". Congress loves to social engineer via our unimaginable complex tax code.

    I think my biggest issue with public education is choice. Why should the physical location of my home concretely determine the school I attend? I think with the user fee setup, I could attend the school of my choice. What school would turn away my kid with cash in hand?

  3. Eddie,

    Welcome. I think your first paragraph is quite correct - taxes do fund many things many of us disagree with. Your example of the military is good; I don't see any reason for the U.S. to have an expeditionary military force. Why do we finance anything beyond national defense forces? Politicians have directed money to building up the military, but I don't know that a majority of people wanted this to happen.

  4. Jeff,

    Four straight days of rain has me depressed. The sun finally showed its face this afternoon. I don't know how I survived the winter in Syracuse.

    What, no posts? You drawing a blank? I may do one on the minimum wage as I have a friend who "truly believes" in a minimum wage. Too many folks claim to support free markets, but they always have one or two areas where they feel government intervention is warranted. I think min wage falls into this category.

  5. I submitted two papers on Friday last week; one to a conference, the other to an special essay contest. Little burned out. Trying to get something together on Rothbard.