Back on a previous post, we got off on a tangent about vouchers (and, by implication, tax credits and other devices for draining funding from public education). Bud said,
I’ve always thought it ironic that opponents of public education complain of “throwing money” at a problem, then turn around and advocate sending the money to private entities that will be completely unaccountable for it. Now THAT’s “throwing money” — up into the air, at random.
I’m generally in support of Brad on this issue and usually don’t write about education issues. But this statement is pretty easy to refute. The accountability aspect of the vouchers is left to the parents who will pull their kids out if the schools don’t perform…
This prompted me to say, rather vehemently,
No, no, NO! Public education is not a consumer transaction between individual parents and the schools. Public education exists for the WHOLE community, and must be accountable to it. And that includes any money that is pulled out of the system and spent on something else.
I need to dig around and see if I can find the column I did several years ago explaining the difference between approaching public affairs as a consumer, and approaching the same from the perspective of a citizen…
Well, I’ve now laid hands on that column (which originally ran on Friday, March 4, 2005), and here’s the relevant part of it. Enjoy:
But the main way in which a tuition tax credit is worse than a voucher is that it promotes the insidiously false notion that taxes paid for public schools are some sort of user fee.
Whether you agree with me here depends upon your concept of your place in society: Do you see yourself as a consumer, or as a citizen?
If you look upon public schools narrowly as a consumer, and you send your kids to private schools or home-school them, then you might think, “Hey, why should I be paying money to this provider, when I’m buying the service from someone else?” If that’s your view, a tuition tax credit makes perfect sense to you. Why shouldn’t you get a refund?
But if you look at it as a citizen, it makes no sense at all. Public schools have never been about selling a commodity; they have always been about the greatest benefits and highest demands of citizenship.
A citizen understands that parents and their children are not the only “consumers” of public school services — not by a long shot. That individual children and families benefit from education is only one important part of the whole picture of what public schools do for society. The rest of us voters and taxpayers have a huge stake, too.
Public schools exist for the entire community — for people with kids in public schools and private schools, people whose kids are grown, people who’ve never had kids and those who never will. (Note that, by the logic of the tax credit advocates, those last three groups should get tax breaks, too. In fact, if only the one-third or so of households who have children in public schools at a given time paid taxes to support them, we wouldn’t be able to keep the schools open.)
Public schools exist to provide businesses with trained workers, and to attract industries that just won’t locate in a place without good public schools. They exist to give our property value. If you doubt the correlation between good public schools and property values, just ask a Realtor.
They exist to create an informed electorate — a critical ingredient to a successful representative democracy. (In fact, if I were inclined to argue that public schools have failed, I would point out just how many people we have walking around without a clear understanding of their responsibilities as citizens. But I don’t expect public education critics to use that one.)
Public schools exist to make sure we live in a decent society full of people able to live productive lives, instead of roaming the streets with no legitimate means of support. In terms of cost-effectiveness on this score, spending roughly $4,400 per pupil for public schools (the state’s actual share, not the inflated figure the bill’s advocates use, which includes local and federal funds) is quite a bargain set against the $13,000 it costs to keep one young person in prison. And South Carolina has the cheapest prisons in the nation.
Consider the taxes we pay to provide fire protection. It doesn’t matter if we never call the fire department personally. We still benefit (say, by having lower insurance rates) because the fire department exists. More importantly, our neighbors who do have an immediate need for the fire department — as many do each day — depend upon its being there, and being fully funded.
All of us have the obligation to pay the taxes that support public schools, just as we do for roads and law enforcement and the other more essential services that government provides. And remember, those of you who think of “government” as some wicked entity that has nothing to do with you: Government provides only those things that we, acting through our elected representatives, decide it should provide. You might disagree with some of those decisions, but you know, you’re not always going to be in the majority in a democracy.
If, as a consumer, you wish to pay for an alternative form of education for your child, you are free to do that. But that decision does not relieve you of the responsibility as a citizen to support the basic infrastructure of the society in which you live.
Radical libertarians — people who see themselves primarily as consumers, who want to know exactly what they are personally, directly receiving for each dollar that leaves their hands — don’t understand the role of government in society because they simply don’t understand how human beings are interconnected. I’m not just saying that we should be interconnected; I’m saying that we are, whether we like it or not. And if we want society to work so that we have a decent place in which to dwell, we have to adopt policies that recognize that stark fact.
That’s why we have public schools. And that’s why we all are obliged to support them.