»  National Review Online

May 15th, 2001

  Paying for Education


Today, May 15th, is voting day in my school district, when we approve tax and budget increases for the coming school year. My local school board is looking to raise taxes nearly 8 per cent, citing inflation, slightly increased enrolments, and some new unfunded mandates from the state. So I get to think about education; which, as a responsible person, I should probably do more often. Better yet, as a columnist, I get to sound off about it.

If anyone should be happy with the current system of school funding, I should. I have two kids in public elementary schools. According to my county freesheet, David Willmott's excellent Suffolk Life, 70 per cent of my property taxes go to fund the school system. My property taxes are $4,100 a year, so this means I'm paying $2,870 for schools — $1,435 per child. I'm actually paying more than this, because some part of my State and Federal income taxes go to the schools, too; and money I hand over for local goods and services has sales and business tax components, some portion of which ends up in school budgets. Still, I'm getting my kids educated for less than $2,000 each, which is a bargain. No local private nor even parochial school can match this. If I gave up my own time to homeschool, reckoning lost earnings for that time at a reasonable hourly rate, homeschooling would cost me ten times that, at least. I further note that if I had followed my grandfather's example and had 13 kids, my town would be educating them at a cost to me of $315 per. Whoo-eeeee! (Though I might then have some trouble with local occupancy ordinances.)

The trick here, of course, is that a lot of other people are paying for my kids to be educated. My neighbor Ruth, for example has a house the same size and age as mine, and so I suppose pays similar property taxes. Ruth, however, is close to eighty, and her kids are both in their fifties, so the $2,800 or so that she is paying into the school system per annum is all gravy to me and my kids. (Though the math here gets complicated. Ruth is on Social Security and Medicare, funded — never mind all that squid ink about "lockboxes" and "trust funds" — by a large chunk of my income taxes … I'll leave this one to Larry Kudlow to figure out.) Local businesses, too, pay heavy taxes; yet, while we all know that a business corporation has a legal "personality," no method has yet been found to permit corporations to make babies.

So the costs of public education are smeared out over all persons and entities to whom some reasonable appeal can be made. To Ruth, the taxman would say: "Your present property taxes are a sort of instalment payment on your own kids' education 40 years ago, which — like Mr. Derbyshire today — you got way below cost at the time." The idea underlying this is that people with school-age children are probably young and hard up, and appreciate getting their kids' education below cost in return for helping pay for the schooling of other people's kids when they are middle-aged and affluent (or, like Ruth, retired and flush with benefits funded from general taxation). To local businessfolk, the taxman would say: "How can you run your business without educated workers? We are one of your suppliers." The idea underlying this — which can easily be extended to appeal to childless homeowners, too — is that education is a social good, like street lighting, that all citizens should be willing to chip in on.

These two underlying ideas — that people welcome the opportunity to amortize the costs of their kids' education through a lifetime payment of property and income taxes, and that education is a social good to which all should contribute, seem to me to be very questionable. The first of them could be covered equally well — much cheaper, in fact, if you do the arithmetic — by parents taking out a bank loan or a mortgage, as they do for other large expenditures they are unwilling to meet immediately. As to the second: is education, as currently practiced, really a large social good? (I note in passing that even if it is, it does not follow that it ought to be publicly funded. The authorities consider it a social good for me to have auto insurance, and have legislated to that effect, but they expect me to pay for it myself.)

Personally, I think it is … but only up to about 5th grade. I want to live among people who can read, write, give correct change and name the capital of their state. Beyond that, I think education is a luxury that people should pay for themselves. Most of what people learn beyond 5th grade is anyway forgotten. I have argued in a previous column that foreign language learning is a waste of time. Same with higher math or history: try stopping adults in the street and asking them to recite the formula for solving quadratic equations, or to state the causes of the 1812 War, things everyboy learns in 9th grade. I think it is hard to make a case for compulsory public education after about age 12 under any funding scheme.

This is not to say that there might not have been a case once, when information about the world was hard to come by; but information dearth is not a problem we suffer from much in A.D. 2001. The young Abe Lincoln walked 30 miles to hear a lawyer give a speech. Nowadays he could flip on the TV or surf the web. Am I the only person who finds something ludicrous in the spectacle of great hulking testosterone-oozing 15-year-old youths squatted in school desks under legal compulsion, listening to someone explaining Shakespeare's imagery? What do they care? What will they remember? What use is it to them? It is hard to keep away the thought that we pen them in schoolrooms like this mainly because we can't think of anything else to do with them. Thirty years ago the Austrian radical anarchist Ivan Illich proposed a "deschooling" of society, to benefit the poor. Sample quote: "The poor in the United States … are making the discovery that no amount of dollars can remove the inherent destructiveness of welfare institutions, once the professional hierarchies of these institutions have convinced society that their ministrations are morally necessary." You don't have to be a radical anarchist to see that the guy had a point. (Radical anarchists aren't all bad, by the way: Illich quotes Milton Friedman with approval.)

Shall we deschool American society, then? Or reform the education system in any other way? Of course we shall not, and we all know why. It's the unions, stupid. Just one of our teachers' organizations, the NEA, is the biggest labor union in the world. It owns the Democratic Party, an entire cabinet department, and most state legislatures. (According to the Wall Street Journal, if you go to the capital city of any state, the grandest building you will see is of course the State Capitol. The second grandest, usually close by, is the headquarters of the state's NEA.)

Here is where I start to foam at the mouth. (You might want to back away from the screen at this point.) I grew up in Britain in the 1960s, when that country's industry was being systematically wrecked by over-powerful labor unions. Union-directed work practices, as portrayed hilariously by Peter Sellers in the 1960 film I'm All Right, Jack, had reduced Britain's once-famous manufacturing skills to a hollow joke. The writer Clive James, growing up in Australia about this time, says that when import rules were relaxed so that Australians could buy Volkswagens and Hondas instead of the terrible products of Vauxhall, Austin and Morris, his countrymen hailed the new vehicles as if they had come to liberate Australia from a foreign tyranny. It was not unusual in those days, on opening the trunk of your newly-purchased British car, to find a small rectangular protuberance jutting out from the trunk floor. This would prove, on close examination, to be an empty cigarette pack, left there by a line worker and spray-painted into place by another, equally indifferent, line worker later in the production process. The union-led decline continued until even the stoical, apolitical British public at last got fed up and elected Margaret Thatcher (whom God preserve!) to put things right. By that time my own young mind had been indelibly impressed with the following principle. It's hardly original, must in fact have been stated thousands of times, but since I have never seen any name attached to it I hereby claim it as my own:

Derbyshire's Law

The quality of any product or service varies in inverse proportion to the political power wielded by those labor unions to which the producers or service providers belong.

And that miserable British experience was mostly about private-sector unions, for which there is actually a strong case to be made, so long as their powers to cause antisocial trouble are carefully circumscribed by law. Labor unions in the public sector? I don't get it. Labor unions exist in private business to prevent unscrupulous bosses from maximizing their profits at workers' expense. In the public sector, however, there are no profits, and the ultimate bosses are the electorate themselves. So why are public-sector workers allowed to have unions? And why are those unions allowed to gather as much raw political power to themselves as the teachers' unions have? Won't they just use that power to enrich themselves and their members from the public fisc? And to slacken professional disciplines? And reduce the burden of professional responsibilities? You bet they will.

Now I shall go and fill some sandbags. An early mentor of mine in journalism told me that you can say anything you like about the government, the IRS, Big Business, the media, the Irish Republican Army, the PLO, Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein or even Barbra Streisand without coming to much harm; but take on the teaching unions, and you better get steel mesh over your windows, and one of those mirrors on a long handle for finding bombs under your car, and sandbags round the front door. These people have p-o-w-e-r, and they know how to use it. Honey, where's the shovel?