Monday, September 11, 2006

READER RESPONSE -- More on school choice

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:47 PM |  

In response to my post on education as a public good, I received the following email from Professor Andrew Young of the economics department at the University of Mississippi. My response follows.
Dear Mr. Westover,

Thank you for taking the time to make thoughtful comments on my article with Walter Block, "Enterprising Education". I thought I'd take the time to address a few of your major points.

A fundamental point that runs throughout your comments is that our "argument is against a monopolisitc government school system, not the need for education." I agree with this statement but differ with you in the apparent belief that free market education can meaningfully exist side by side with government education.

If government taxes ALL citizens for education (not just those who attend government schools) then government schools have the severe competitive advantage. Those opting for private education of their children would have to have the means to pay two tuitions. So while government schools are not a pure monopoly, they certainly exert excessive market power. Imagine the government telling you that you will be taxed $40,000 to have a Chevy Camaro provided to you, but that you are still free to buy a Ford Mustang if you like. If you complained, imagine the absurdity of the government telling you this would only be a problem if Chevy had a strict monopoly in the market!

However, I certainly grant that you have a more complete view, expressed towards the end of your comments: "The challenge for education reform is broadening the scope of 'public education' to include, through parental choice and not direct government subsidies, private education and encourage further development of the market." This is an oft-endorsed ideal and one to be addressed seriously.

I will argue that this ideal is self-contradictory. You seem to imply that government should get out of the business of defining what is or is not proper education. ("Taxes collected and earmarked for education should follow students, not be put into any specific private or public, secular or religious education systems.") But if government pays for "education", but in no way defines what "education" is, then government would simply take people's money and hand it back to them to spend how they see fit. (Clearly this would be a useless exercise! . . . though one I'd prefer to the present situation.)

Rephrased, for government to specifically target education with taxes and subsidies, government must define the parameters of what an education IS. We return to the problem of the Republic providing the education about the Republic. Under your system - true enough - "If government schools fail to keep pace with the market, they will die naturally." We will be left with "market" entities teaching what is required/outlined by the government. We might as well call the armed forces private enterprise because most of the bombs are made by private businesses!

You may think that the above is being picky. The counter-argument would be that education deserving of subsidy can be easily defined in broad strokes. (E.g., algebra and geometry - yes; Nintendo 101 - no.) But is it really? As Block and I demonstrate historically, the motives behind and results of the government concepts of education have been less that sparkling. Indeed, you comment that, as far as that history goes, you "find little to disagree with in this section of Young and Block’s argument".

I enjoyed reading your comments very much and I hope that you enjoy reading my responses.


Andrew Young


Andrew –

Wow. I’m flattered that you took the time to respond to my article. I appreciate both the implied complement and the insights.

As you might gather, my heart and sympathies are with your point of view, were we designing our own Republic. (I have made many of the same arguments.) Unfortunately, we are not. In Minnesota we have a state constitution that grants authority to “establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.” That is my context.

While you agree with my notion that there is a difference between a monopolistic government school system and a broader view of “public education,” you disagree that free-market education can meaningfully exist side-by-side with government education. Let me address that.

My assumption is not that all taxes collected by government for education are earmarked for government schools or that all children attending private schools must do so with only family funds. Government would collect taxes for education, but education dollars would follow the student (vouchers or tax credits), not be dedicated to any specific system of education.

In such a state, government schools would have a market advantage, initially, because they have the better infrastructure and an established customer base (albeit a coerced base). To use your auto analogy, think Detroit in the 1970s. But over time, competition would mitigate that advantage, just as higher quality foreign cars overcame a lack of dealerships and infrastructure to capture market share. The market will prevail, unless government schools provide a service people want. If they do, why abolish them? If they don’t, you won’t have to.

You argue that this ideal is self-contradictory – if government pays for "education", but in no way defines what "education" is, then government would simply take people’s money and hand it back to them to spend how they see fit. I think that’s over simplifying the issue.

You do not take into account the neighborhood affect of education; that is, education (broadly defined as skills and knowledge, not the system that delivers skills and knowledge) has benefits to society as well as to the individual student being educated. Therefore, taxes collected for education come in part from those without children of K-12 age. (In fact, given the cost of a free public school education, very few people pay enough total state tax in Minnesota to begin to cover their share of educating their children.) Government is doing more than taking an individual’s money and giving it back; it is aggregating a share of the benefit to society of education broadly defined. I may be playing at words a little, but in “public good” terms, government is collecting and distributing the fee due to a family for providing society the service of educating its children.

Next we need look at two aspects of the above paragraph. First, how the government might collect and distribute education taxes and second what constitutes “education.”

While I support state-funded vouchers as a means to solve an immediate Minnesota problem of getting children from low-income families out of failing government schools (and recognize that vouchers are not a free-market solution), a better long-term approach is a tax credit system where individuals receive a one-to-one tax credit for dollars contributed to K-12 education.

In other words, a childless individual could claim an education tax credit (within parameters) for contributing to a scholarship fund, a specific school, or a specific child. The default would be state-run education. In that way, the government ensures that a minimum dollar amount is spent on education, but does not control specifically where those dollars go. Low-income individuals apply to scholarship funds, which given the tax credit motivation ought to be well funded, or rely on one-to-one individual education funds.

That brings us to the question of “what is education?” We have, perhaps a fine line here, but I believe a general accreditation system, much like we have for colleges and universities, would be workable. Educational institutions would be accredited based on their ability to provide knowledge and skills without regard to what that knowledge might be or those skills are. While government schools might continue to teach what government wants people to know – an unhealthy situation for a republic, I agree – it does not control the content of free-market education through any definition of “education.” In other words, remove private education from state academic standards or special incentives for taking specific courses or any strings beyond basic accreditation.

The biggest danger in my position is the historical tendency of government that you and Mr. Block eloquently and accurately detail. But given that tendency, do you really feel that government officials are going to surrender and throw open education to the free market? I don’t think so. And when you look at the reaction to Social Security choice, the majority of Americans are not really excited about a “risky” free-market education scheme. I do think a politician could generate excitement about education by telling childless indiivduals “Hey, you can send a $1,000 to the department of education or you can send it to your cousin Vinny’s boy for private school tuition.”

In short, I agree with what you say, I just believe that there is a better way to achieve educational reform than abolishing “public education.”

Again, thanks for your comments. They are greatly appreciated.

Best –

Craig Westover