Also around this time, philanthropist & activist Betsy DeVos was girding for a contentious confirmation battle over her appointment as President Donald Trump’s education secretary. She faced hostile opposition both from senate democrats still quite sore about the president’s electoral defeat of their nominee, Hillary Clinton, and from teachers unions and ‘public school’ advocates who oppose what Mrs. DeVos has pushed for years; more freedom of choice & parental control in K-12 education.
Let’s dispense with something first & foremost; the federal department of education arguably should not exist in the first place. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is “education” or “school” mentioned. It is one of the best examples of those “powers … reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” as per the 10th amendment. If the only thing Secretary DeVos ever achieved while in office was to carry out Kentucky congressman Thomas Massie’s bill to abolish the DoE, she would rightly be hailed as a most successful public servant. Short of that, promoting more school choice is a close second.
From swim lessons, to t-ball, to cheerleading, to music lessons, to gymnastics … you name it, my girls have done it, with multiple organizations, some as far as 10-15 miles away from home. We even chose as our pediatrician a doctor whose office was further away than that. Not only has her replacement upon retirement been just as pleasant, but now she’s just a couple miles from the house.
We personally would be lucky if doctors were ‘assigned’ to us the same way public schools are; place of residence. But why should it be that way? Why can’t we pick from a variety of schools like we do extracurricular activities? Because at least here in Texas, where you pay property tax for your primary residence determines the public schools for your children. That might be the only thing I like less about my great home state than the climate.
This mystery didn’t occur to me until I took Dr. John Merrifield’s urban & regional economics course at UTSA. He has spilled a lot of ink on the topic of school choice, including a few books, most notably perhaps 2001’s “The School Choice Wars”. The fact that my first daughter was a toddler and her first sister was on the way at the same time only served to heighten my interest.
We do have some semblance of choice here, exemplified in part by the aforementioned magnet schools. Children can also literally be ‘grandfathered’ in to our district if their grandparents live within its borders and provide "significant after-school care". One of my oldest daughter’s friends back in elementary school went there because that’s where her mother taught. Transfers are possible for a handful of other reasons, but “are generally denied due to lack of space”.
If parents were allowed however, to use as their initial round of funding, a proportionate amount of public revenue earmarked for that specific purpose, they could send their kids to any school they chose, assuming it meets a minimum level of state-approved criteria (children should be able to master a certain level of math by a certain grade, reading comprehension by a certain grade, knowledge of history, etc.) Beyond that, the schools would be free to specialize however they AND the market sees fit.
At an early age her mother & I noticed that our second-born liked putting things together. Nowadays she has taken an interest in cooking & baking. Our third daughter is somewhat athletically-inclined, while our fourth is kinda artsy. Our oldest daughter is musically inclined, playing the baritone in high school band while taking piano lessons on the side.
Those are just a few specialties around which schools could focus. Maybe some of the places we patronize(d) would expand or merge their operations to include general schooling. Some already provide after-school care. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination, and that of enterprising entrepreneurs.
Such schools would be free to set tuition at whatever level they deem appropriate: more than, less than or equal to the amount of the vouchers (NOT the dirty word demagogues make it out to be) allotted to each child. But those prices would be unlikely to stay put. For example, if a particular metro area turned out to have a higher concentration of young would-be engineers than schools to serve them, the price of tuition would in all likelihood rise to find a new market equilibrium. Parents would have to decide whether or not they value those schools enough to make up the difference. As Dr. Merrifield reiterated to me recently, that’s one reason the current system is flawed; a lack of price signals. The subsequent shift in the balance of the market would be temporary, setting off an adjustment.
As I’ve alluded to before regarding recent changes in the bee population, prices are not just the cost it takes for us to buy something. There is a plethora of information wrapped up in the price of a good: the supply & demand of/for a good, cost of inputs, the availability of substitutes, preference for a particular good, etc.
One point I stress in my classes, THROUGHOUT the semester, is that suppliers react differently to prices than demanders do. Since the entire population plays the part of a demander almost daily, we’re all familiar with that angle. However, only a handful of us are suppliers (excluding the labor we supply when we go to work), and thus not wholly in-tune with how they react.
Those aforementioned higher tuition prices would emit a signal; an opportunity for profit (another word soiled by irresponsible linguistic manipulators). That would likely lure others to open up such schools. In order to be competitive, the new market entrants would charge lower tuition, offer more for the same price, or some combination of both.
To stay competitive, the existing schools might expand. They also might extend financial assistance in the form of grants or scholarships to those excelling students of lesser means. What could be better for a school’s reputation than educating the best & brightest?
In any event, what used to be a producer surplus would turn into a consumer surplus, as the market would be cleansed of inefficient/ineffective operators, all the while benefitting parents & children.
All this assumes of course, a light regulatory touch. As in nearly all markets, the more a public bureaucracy grows, the more innovation is dulled. Disincentives arise. The more standards are augmented, or altered, the more likely current market participants become entrenched at the expense of prospective new entrants (see the current debate over licensing). All these would constitute a wet blanket that suppresses the price signals that fuel progress.
Alas, as it stands now the only price signal that exists in grammar school education is … real estate??
Even growing up in modestly-sized Victoria, TX (population 50,000), I learned there are good sides of town, and not-so-good sides of town. The latter tend to be run-down, more susceptible to crime, illicit drug-related activity, gangs, etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, that negatively impacts property values, and in turn suppresses property tax collections.
According to the Texas Education Agency, about 50% of public school funding derives from property taxes (roughly 10% comes from Uncle Sam, while around 40% comes from the Lone Star). That hardly seems fair to those children born & raised in such property-poor settings. Children’s education is the ultimate example of equality of opportunity, and it shouldn’t be restricted by a socioeconomic situation that was not of their making.
A generation ago, after a couple of efforts by the legislature to remedy the situation were rejected by the state Supreme Court, the court eventually blessed what is commonly known as ‘Robin Hood’ (technically referred to as Chapter 41 Wealth Equalization). A school district that has “wealth per student that exceeds” a certain level subsequently has that excess “recaptured” and redirected to property-poor districts.
And a generation later, public school funding in Texas is still an issue.
To make up the local component of funding for public education, perhaps an alternative to property taxes could be a county or metro-area sales tax that would be inclusive of ALL areas of town & the local economy. This would be the most efficient, direct way to pull the funds. No more artificial inflation of property values & taxes for childless homeowners and seniors on fixed incomes. It would remove an inefficiency from the rental market. It might also curtail the construction of arguably exorbitant facilities that are as tied to property wealth as they are to student outcomes.
The Texas constitution states that “a general diffusion of knowledge” is “essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people,” a point few would dispute. Education is a prime example of a positive externality; the knowledge, skills & general human capital a student attains benefits society as a whole when employed on the push toward greater prosperity.
The constitution also states that the state legislature “shall … make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Some number of traditional ‘public’ schools would remain where an education could be attained for the face value of the individual vouchers. Moreover, some parents may prefer the convenience of the nearby school. Some may simply not be able to get a bead on what it is their child has a particular knack for.
At the end of the day, no one is more vested, or has a greater interest in a child’s well-being & enlightenment than his/her parents. My daughters are my best opportunity to have a positive impact on society. Their mother & I are as integral to their upbringing & education as anyone or anything else. Still, it should be an option for us to fund their education with some portion of the taxes we pay, at whichever school we see fit. Every parent should have that option.
A market of millions of parents can’t be wrong.