Tuesday, April 15, 2008

School's out forever!

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 could go on, but it's getting kind of absurd and might cloud the point. After all, the point is not what I value or how much I value these things. It's that I do. If these things were taken away from me, if I could not access the fields or take pictures of the school, my life would be poorer and I would be less happy.

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?


FreeMarket said...

I am not one to beat a dead horse either, or maybe I am, but I think you confusing public education with publicly funded education. Knowing that a school is “public” tells you exactly one thing about it- it is run by the government. It could be funded from either taxes, or funded by user fees. Conversely, a private school could be publicly funded (by vouchers or whatever) or user fees could fund it.

None of the benefits you bullet pointed necessitate publicly funded education, only publicly owned and publicly run schools. Although negative externalities may justify government intervention, positive externalities (such as living in a society of well educated people) does not justify government intervention in the market.

I think I made my points on my blog, and with all due respect, the fallacy of your argument seems apparent to me. Of course, I spend my free time reading Greg Mankiw textbooks. Of course schools that are 100% funded from user fees are politically infeasible, but there is a strong argument for at least some of the costs of public schools coming from fees charged to parents. If a public school spends $10,000 on your child, and you have to pay $3,000 of that directly, is that such a bad deal? I don’t think so.

The reality is, I think most people have a strange emotional attachment to the idea of publicly funded schools. As completely inefficient as publicly funded schools may be from an economic standpoint, it is too easy for most laypeople to rationalize the alleged benefits of publicly funded education. So this is all really just a thought experiment.

FreeMarket said...

OK, to beat a dead horse: you said in your post you are not going anywhere near the "population control" issue. Just so you know, there is no population control issue with respect to publicly funded education, and that is important to point out.

We don't say that government is controlling the population by making most of us pay for our food, clothes and shelter, and likewise we shouldn't say that the government is attempting to control the population by asking most of us to pay for our own children's education. Please don't twist words like that.

Anonymous said...

"I think one of the benefits of such a plan is that it would make parents choose between certain material goods (bigger house, fancy car or whatever) and having that extra kid. That is the whole point, actually."

Who said that? It wasn't mamagoots.

hocoskool overhyped said...

I'd feel a lot better about funding public education if there weren't vast differences in schools depending on where you live. Firstly, that Howard County can brag about being one of the best school systems speaks more to the failures of public education than to the success.

Secondly, the quality of your education is based solely on where you reside. What are the top schools in Howard County? Centennial, Marriotts Ridge, etc, schools that draw from the wealthiest neighborhoods. Which schools struggle? Those in less affluent areas. And, thanks to closed enrollment policies, there is no comingling or moving across school boundaries.

Until the inequities in public education are addressed and resolved, public education is a waste of tax dollars for every person that pays for a top notch school and only receives mediocre education.