It seems like every year with the onset of the spring heat – yeah, I'm calling it heat – I go through a bout of restless sleep.
For me, the ideal ambient sleeping temperature is somewhere around freezing and the ideal ambient household temperature is not much higher. Seriously…kind of.
During the winter, we keep the thermostat at a toasty 61ish degrees during the day and 57ish at night. Most people find this too cold. Most people are crazy. It's heaven.
But now, it's getting warmer, hot even, and as much as I love and, now, need cold air to sleep right, I can't bring myself to crank the A/C. Sure, I could open a window but (say what you will about this) I'm not really that comfortable leaving my first-floor bedroom window open with only a lovingly lackadaisical Husky for home protection.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I've had trouble falling asleep recently. And when I have trouble falling asleep, I think about stuff that generally makes me happy (I'm a 7), stuff like kickball, the Orioles, vacations I can't afford, mountain biking, taco night, my wife, dog, etc. (not necessarily in that order, but pretty close…).
So last night, after working through several kickball scenarios involving dramatic catches and exceptional base-running, my mind drifted onto a topic that's been hotly discussed on Freemarket's blog: school funding.
Although I've been known to in the past, I don't want to beat a dead horse here. I'm not going anywhere near the population control or kid propaganda machine issues. But all this talk about who pays for schools and who benefits stirred the not-quite-sleeping economist in me.
On the face of it, having parents pay for their kids' education seems like a pretty straightforward idea based on economics and fairness. Education is a tangible service provided at a cost. As with most services in society, if you want the benefit of it, you foot the bill.
Of course, education ain't massage therapy.
Rather, education, like many goods and services, places all sorts of externalities on our society, many of which cannot be quantified. For instance, how do you measure the benefit of living in a well-educated society? I'm sure someone's tried, but I don't feel like hopping down that Google-hole and I don't really think the results would be that conclusive.
But our educational system also provides direct services to residents, even those who aren't parents or children. And while lying awake last night, I came up with a pretty healthy list of services that I value. To wit:
- Fields for practicing kickball with my friends
- Fields for playing the annual Turkey Bowl football with my friends
- Subjects for photograph
- Hunting grounds for local hawks
- Places for me to see local hawks hunting
- Places where my dog can run in circles with 25-foot radii
- Basketball hoops
- Polling place
- Shortcuts to various locations
- Places where additional houses cannot be built
- Places for community meetings
- Chances to connect my neighbors while walking their kids to and from school
I'll admit to being uncomfortable about monetizing everything in life, but if we're playing the economics game, let's play by the rules. As I said, how much I value these things is largely irrelevant, although I will say some are likely worth as little as a couple dollars and some much more so. Regardless, if it came down to losing the right to access these services or paying to keep them, I would be more than willing to throw at least a few – probably more – dollars in the hat.
Disentangling the value of these services from the broader collection of things I pay for with my tax dollars is probably impossible. But all of it is in there, internalized in the price I'm willing to pay to live in this community and therefore the amount of property taxes I pay each year to support the network of publicly provided goods.
So this is why I can't agree with argument that parents shoulder 100 percent of the burden for the cost of their child's education. Even if I'm the only one who practices kickball on school fields – and I know I'm not – everyone in this community derives some value from the school system. And if you value something that you don't pay for, you're a free rider. And in theoretical economics-speak, free riders lead to Pareto inefficient market outcomes – or, they screw things up.
Given the imperfections of identifying the value each individual places on our public schools, deriving a system where funding is entirely proportional to the benefits they receive is beyond our political and policy capacities. This is not to say there isn't a better system out there; it's just that, thus far, I haven't heard of one.
But who knows? Give me a few more warm, restless nights and I might come up with a plan. Either that or the perfect kickball line-up. Both are of generally the same value to me.
A couple notes: My family shares a pretty strong commitment to fairness. This, I think, explains why I love sports and economics. At least in theory, both create somewhat-artificial contexts where "fair" is the initial condition and then let independent actors duke it out for whatever it is they're seeking, constrained only by the rules of "the game" and how they play it.
My interest in both however is less in the rules or theories, but in the performance. When the situation changes, how do people react? How does something that happens in the beginning of the situation play out at the end. I'm genuinely fascinated by the decisions people make when faced with a set of circumstances, resources and constraints they only partially control.
Also, let's say we did charge people the full cost for educating their kids, what would happen? My guess: A lot more home-schooling, as well as, unfortunately, "home-schooling."
Finally, I think someone mentioned this but I don't have the time to look it up: Isn't it true that you most likely pay off the costs of your public education over the course of your life? I spent 18 years in Maryland public schools and universities and I'm thankful everyday for the education and opportunities I received. While interviewing for a job with the State of Maryland out of graduate school, I mentioned that the debt I owed to taxpayers for my education was a factor in my decision to work in the public sector.
If, all of a sudden, you stopped charging general taxpayers for educational costs, wouldn't at least some of them be getting off with a pretty sweet deal?