A Good Sign for Public Education?

The Daily Caller reported recently that a high school in Medina, Ohio has begun charging parents fairly hefty fees for various of the activities and extras that it offers, even for seemingly basic courses like Spanish I and Earth Science. Parents are upset, of course, believing that since they are already paying taxes they shouldn’t also have to pay these additional fees.

They have a point. Why should they have to pay twice? On the other hand, by that logic, why should people who do not send their children to public schools be required to pay the taxes to support them anyway? (The response “because public schools are a public good from which everyone benefits” fails, I believe, on both moral grounds and on empirical grounds, but that is a discussion for another day.)

In Medina, Ohio’s case, I would like to offer a qualified “Good!” The introduction of these fees will expose parents to more of the costs associated with running their school. Although those costs are almost certainly inflated, still as individual parents are asked to pay them for their own children, that will tend to level, ever so marginally, the playing field for other educational alternatives.

Right now all private schools face a significant competitive disadvantage because parents who choose to send their children to their schools must nevertheless still continue paying for the public schools. They have to pay twice. (Imagine someone arguing that because the United States Postal Service was so important to this nation’s [whatever], anyone who sends a package via UPS, FedEx, or any other private service must still pay a fee to the USPS—and the USPS will itself largely determine what that fee will be!) Because everyone in the district must pay the taxes, however, the costs are distributed among a much larger group of households than the actual number that have children in the system. Thus the costs to households using the service are subsidized by households not using them.

The introduction of user fees at the public schools will seem to affected parents much more personal. They will feel it directly, because they will have to write a check for it. This is a good thing. Not only will it help remind people that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but it may also help those parents who are considering a private option be able to do so. They might think, “If I have to pay $4,446.50 extra for my daughter to take Spanish I, Earth Science, and band, maybe I should just send her to the Catholic school we’d thought about anyway, whose annual tuition is only about $2000 more than that anyway.”

That might lead to competition, which would benefit everyone—public and private alike.

So while the fees in the Medina, Ohio case might well be buoying bloated budgets, benefits, retirement packages, etc., still a little competition spurred by a little personal responsibility can go a long way.

9 thoughts on “A Good Sign for Public Education?

  1. “(Imagine someone arguing that because the United States Postal Service was so important to this nation’s [whatever], anyone who sends a package via UPS, FedEx, or any other private service must still pay a fee to the USPS—and the USPS will itself largely determine what that fee will be!)”

    Curiously, because the USPS is often given bailout funds, is it not?

  2. “Imagine someone arguing that because the United States Postal Service was so important to this nation’s [whatever], anyone who sends a package via UPS, FedEx, or any other private service must still pay a fee to the USPS—and the USPS will itself largely determine what that fee will be”

    Actually, that is the case. Everytime you send a non-urgent piece via one of those alternative carriers; said carrier must pay a fee to the USPS. Lookup Private Express Statutes. Strange, illogical and ridiculous, but nonetheless true.

    With regard to the school fees. I can’t quite see how compelling one to pay the taxes and then compelling one to pay additional fees to partake of a service which is already compulsory in nature can be construed as creating competition. It may compel you to choose a private school but I fail to see any competition, ex nihilo, or how this scenario makes the public school or the private school any better or efficient in their operations.

    In fact the contrary is true. Imagine if in your scenario everyone decides to make the leap to private schools. Then the taxpayors would still be left with the buildings, bloated budgets, benefits, retirement packages, etc. The public schools would have no incentive to lure the students back. Private schools would have no incentive to be more efficient in their use of funds if the public schools forced student their way in the manner you describe.

  3. Jawats and Jardinero1, good point about the USPS. I still have a hard time imagining a person making that case publicly, but that’s a separate issue.

    Jardinero1, regarding school fees and competition, two thoughts. One, education subsidies from states to school districts is in many (thought not all) cases tied to enrollments; so if students started to go elsewhere, schools might receive less funding, which might act as an incentive to increase the quality of what they do. Two, I was assuming that if large numbers of students started going elsewhere, taxpayers might balk at having to the same level of taxes and thus might agitate for lower taxes. That too might introduce incentives to improve. Do you think that assumption is unwarranted?

  4. I agree with the overall analysis that the scenario you describe would drive some public school parents to send their kids to private schools.

    On your point one, I can’t answer, because what makes a public school better quality is highly subjective. For one parent, it might be the Spanish program and earth science program; for others it might be the wrestling team or the size of the library or the uniform policy or any combination of those things. Better quality is as myriad as the desires of the parents and students who attend.

    Your point two is a little less ambiguous. You are right, taxpayers might desire a reduction. But it’s a pretty convoluted method to achieve the end of making schools “better qualtiy” or obtaining a reduction in tax rates.

    This is plainly a reaction by a local school district to a declining tax base. Instead of cutting salaries or staff, the district responded by imposing an additional fee on those who prefer to use the tax funded schools instead of a private school. That’s all the there there is there. It will be interesting to watch if the various externalities you describe will play out.

  5. why should people who do not send their children to public schools be required to pay the taxes to support them anyway?

    I used to be sympathetic to this, but my kids are responsible for $46,000 of debt incurred by all adults and my kids will be paying into Medicare and Social security for all adults. In this kind of world, where childless adults make financial claims on my kids, I’m fine requiring them to help me pay the kids’ way.

    1. Isn’t this one of the horrible things about the welfare state as a whole – it encourages people to think they should fight to get “theirs” as everyone else seems to be jumping into the trough? Once the state opens itself to massive rent-seeking, it seems irrational to remain on the sidelines.

    2. This reminds me of a passage from Bastiat’s The Law: “This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for all, and there are only three ways to settle it: (1) the few plunder the many; (2) everybody plunders everybody; (3) nobody plunders anybody. We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal plunder, and no plunder.”

      The problem is that what Bastiat calls “limited plunder” runs the risk of becoming, sooner or later, “universal plunder.” Once the system is created whereby some people have a legal claim, an “entitlement,” to the money or labor of others, then the kind of defensive calculation you describe becomes understandable, even if the moral injunction that it is wrong to live at unwilling others’ expense continues to hold.

      I think your point is an important one, perhaps worthy of exploration in a separate post.

  6. It would be nice if the fees were charged for services provided by the schools that are not related to teaching basic disciplines: social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, drug and alcohol counselors, extra vice/deputy principals to manage all these programs, etc. If schools focused on basic disciplines: English, History, Science, Foreign Languages, Math, Music and Art, the costs would plummet.

    The schools have unfortunately been used over the years to combat myriad social problems: drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, family breakdown, and the like -and staff has been added to cover these “subjects.” Right now there’s a push to include things like “financial literacy” as if this could make up for not teaching basic math.

  7. Because the users cannot personally pay for their early education, I do not understand the glee aroused here by the thought of any sort of private fee on education.

    How is education ‘not’ a public good? I think this assumption requires some explanation.

    I’ve heard the argument before about some sort of long-term benefit to a disparity in education quality which parallels a disparity in parents’ income. I don’t buy it — you would need to prove that there is some sort of natural inheritance of (raw and potential) intelligence from parents to their children. Inherent in this argument is the assumption that the concentration of wealth over a generation or more will indicate who best to offer the educational resources of a society to. I doubt this, and I doubt this sort of research can even be done.

    This then becomes a short-run moral issue. Children receiving a poor education because their parents cannot afford anything better are being punished, or at least severely limited, because of their parents’ life choices. How does one know that these children are not those best suited to utilize this resource (education)? It seems to be a false premise based on replicating some superficial understanding of genetics.

    You have the added risk in such a determinist allocation (of society’s education-resources) of certain segments of society only being able to pass on certain information to their offspring — info related to what is presumed to be their inevitable lot in life. This entrenches that segment of society into their economic class through the generations, and they will develop their own ‘consciousness’ and culture of inferiority or superiority; new generations will have no possibility of class-mobility because they don’t even have the information available to them explaining how the other class functions. You see this in most of the world, including the United States.

    I see huge negative externalities in a state with such disparity. More importantly, I see an injustice in limiting a child’s intellectual development due to their parent’s economic standing. Does the poorer child’s subsidized education cut out of a richer child’s? Obviously it does — but what did the richer child ever do to ‘earn’ that?

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