National Public Education
4Nov/170

Problems with Choice Plans

Lately I have written two letters to editors.  The first was to my local newspaper, the Decorah, (Iowa) News.

Some Problems with Educational “Choice”.

Dear Editor:

It seems to me that there are several problems with “Educational Savings Plans”, vouchers, and other plans to give back public funds to parents so that they can pay for private schools.  These schemes not only take money away from the public schools; they also have internal inconsistencies that don’t make sense.

The numbers just don’t add up.  If we were talking about a child in a private school, it would make sense that parents could get their money back when they took their child out of school.  They put the money for that child in, so they ought to be able to get it back.  But we are not talking about a private program; public schools are publicly funded by the entire community.  The cost of educating that child was borne by everyone in the state, not just the parents.  That’s the point of public education; we all share the costs (and the benefits).  Why, then, are only the parents getting back a refund?  Shouldn’t the rest of the population get one, too?

Your average taxpayer supports public education because he or she gets a benefit from a better-educated populace.  Public schools lower the crime rate, increase productivity, improve our health, and create a more civil and unified society.  When that child drops out of the school system, then, each taxpayer is getting less of that public benefit, yet is still paying the same amount of tax.  They all should get a refund.

And the amount the parents are offered doesn’t make sense, either.  They typically get the average amount each taxpayer pays into the state school system, which in Iowa is said to be $6,366.  But the parents didn’t spend all of this on their own child; they spend it on every child in the state.  So not only should each taxpayer get some (small) amount back when a child drops out, but the parents should actually get the same small amount.  That is the amount they actually contributed to their own child’s education in a public school, so that is what they should get back.  Your taxes don’t just go for your own child’s education.

So why do the state legislatures agree to these illogical schemes?  Because they profit from them.  The amount that they give back to the parents, though more than it should be, is still considerably less than the amount they save by not educating that child.

It’s not rocket science.  There are many more taxpayers than there are children, so the cost to each taxpayer is considerably less than the actual cost of a child’s education.  It probably costs the state, say, about $20,000 to educated each child, as it does in private schools, but this amount, times the number of children, is spread out over all the thousands and thousands of taxpayers, so each taxpayer only has to pay the $6,366.  The state then gives back to the parents only the taxpayers’ cost, not the full cost for the education of the child.  This is only logical; you wouldn’t want to give back to the parents more than they put in.  So, each time a child drops out, the state gains the per-child cost, since they no longer have to provide this, but only loses the per-taxpayer cost, which is much smaller. They profit from each withdrawal.

And where does the money for that profit come from?  Out of the pocket of the general taxpayer, who is still paying the same amount of tax as before but now is getting less public benefit from this expenditure.  Why any tax-paying citizen would ever agree to such a scheme is a mystery to me.

Note that I am not saying anything against private education.  There is nothing wrong with sending your child to a private school.  What is wrong is to try to pay for this with public funds; it just doesn’t work.

 

The second was to the Des Moines Register.

Educational “Choice” and Democracy

People often debate whether vouchers and other educational “choice” plans will produce better or worse schools.  That’s not the main problem.  By trying to “give back” tax dollars, these plans undermine the basic principles on which our democracy was founded.

The idea behind educational choice is that taxpayers ought to be able to take back “their” money that they paid in educational taxes and use this to fund private programs.  This is quite different, though, from the state actually passing a law that public funds could be used for private schools.  No one is suggesting that, since it is pretty clear that no one would vote for it.  Rather the idea is that money that has already been assigned to the public schools can now be transferred to a private enterprise.

That is the problem, and why this plan violates the principles of our democracy.  Those funds were approved by the normal voting process for our state legislators and the plans they adopt. What we approved, though, was a public school program.  If the government now chooses to spend that money on something else, they are, in effect, violating that agreement.

If we allow this to go unchallenged, we will end up with problems considerably more serious than just how to educate our children.  Such a plan undermines the whole process of voting for any program.  If we can “take back” the money we voted to spend on a program, why bother to vote at all?  What would be the point of having elections, legislatures, or even government itself, if the votes of the people can be reversed so easily?  The entire concept of giving back tax dollars is not only detrimental to public education, it is detrimental to democracy itself.

 

In response to both these letters, some have argued that, "well, if we can't have these plans, what can we have?  At least they do something to help the schools."  Quite so. Criticizing these "choice" plans does not totally solve our public school problems.  We still need to come up with an improvement that will work.  Once we focus on that, though, I think we will see the need for a national school system.

Peter Dodington

Nov. 4, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6May/170

The Fallacy of “Choice” in Public Education

 

One of the arguments one often hears for the privatization of public education is that we ought to have a “choice” as to what kinds of schools we attend.  In a world where, it is said, there is so much choice already, such as on the internet, why should we have to put up with this “one size fits all” government-run school system?  “Choice” is an American right, they say; it is what makes us “exceptional.”  We should naturally have the right, then, to choose from several different kinds of education for our children, such as charter schools, voucher plans, home schooling, religious schools, etc.

But this view doesn’t make sense.  It ignores the distinction between public and private programs.  “Choice” is a valid concept for a private, market-based transaction, such as when you are buying a new pair of shoes, but does not have a similar validity in a public program like public education.  The whole point of a public program is that we are making a collective project; we are sharing our resources so that we can produce something better than what we could do individually.  In that shared, government-run program, the concept of “choice” will never have the importance that it has in a private transaction.  How this works in public education is fairly clear.

If you get to choose something, and so have a “choice,” you also get to pay for it.  Why would anyone else pay for it?  It’s your decision; you are getting the benefit from it.  So if we really did have “choice” for individuals in public education, what would that mean?  Can you, alone, afford to build a school?  Or a gym, or labs, or hire a calculus teacher? Schools are expensive, like fire engines, power plants, and other things we collectively pay for through public programs.  If we want to treat them like simple consumer goods, like shoes, and so have complete “choice” over how we buy them, we would then also have to pay for them all by ourselves, and so would have to settle for a much lower level of quality.

If we want good schools, we need the help of other taxpayers.  But once you involve these other people you are going to have to let them in, so to speak, on the project. If it’s a cooperative effort, the choices have to be made cooperatively, not individually.  There is no way around this.  Of course we would all like to be able to afford our own private way of educating our children, and the “choice” that goes with this, but most of us can’t afford it.

The whole concept is illogical.  Who is, after all, making this choice?  Obviously, the parents of the children involved.  It’s not a “choice” for the general public, but for the parents with school-aged children.  But who is paying for these schools?  Parents only make up a quarter of our taxpayers.  By far the main supporters of the public schools are the non-parent general public.  So why don’t they get a “choice” about how to spend their money?  Why is a quarter of the population allowed to choose what they want, but the rest of us don’t?  It might make sense for the parents to have “choice” if, in fact, the parents were paying the full cost of the schools, but they aren’t.  The whole concept, then, is illogical and unstable, and the general public will eventually refuse to support it.

Furthermore, we like collective projects.  Let’s look at a middle-school playground, the source of much wisdom.  There, the lonely kid standing off by himself has the “choice” of what game to play that day.  He is free to choose.  Great.  But all the rest of the kids, the ones in the games and other collective activities, no longer have that “choice.”  They have already agreed to play by the rules of the game they are playing, and that’s fine with them.  They don’t have “choice;” they have collective, shared action.  They are doing something together with each other and that is more fun than being alone and having total “choice”.

Collective, shared activities produce better outcomes and are more enjoyable.  But once you are in them, you don’t get “choice.”  You have to abide by the collective decisions that were made when the program was set up. We did “choose” the public school system, a long time ago, and we chose the government to run it.  It didn’t just happen; people voted for it, since it was a good way to share the costs with the entire population and so produce a much better education for our children.  And, yes, that decision does limit how much free choice we now have in that system, but it is well worth it.   The collective, shared benefits far outweigh the value of any individual “choice.”

Peter Dodington

May 6, 2017