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Two school models, two ethical models of financing

As I left the church-based preschool my daughter attends, the director drew my attention to the nearby countertop. On it was a class photo of my girl and all her classmates. Would I like to buy this photo, she asked, for only $10?

“Another revenue stream?,” I asked.

“Oh yes,” she said, with a mixture of delight and good cheer. “We try to squeeze everything out of you that we can.”

That exchange illustrates a fundamental difference between private schooling and public schooling. The former uses enticements, the latter uses force.

The private school entices my money away

Consider what had to happen for the director and I to get to this point. The congregation (not my own) had to incur the risk of hiring a director, a teacher, and an aide; comply with various state and local regulations; and  equip the employees and children with supplies. Then it has to recruit students, both from within its ranks and from the broader community.

How did the school attract me? I frequently drive by the building and kept seeing a sign: “Preschool registration open.” So one day I stopped in and found the director. We talked about a number of topics, including the teacher’s preparation and experience, the things the children do each day, the benefits and limits of the school, and the tuition. She had to convince me that every month, I would receive a value from her school that would match or exceed the value I placed on the tuition.

Since my daughter’s first day with the school, I believe I have received what I have paid for. My daughter likes the experience, and she is learning many things. The teacher has been available for brief conversations any time I go to the building. We’ve also had two longer conferences, and she responds to my email questions. I have also gotten invited to a Christmas program, special Sunday worship services that involve some of the children in the school, a Friday night “parents’ night out,” and fundraising events. I haven’t been required to attend any of these events, but I have anyway, because I see value in them.

In short, the private school’s financing model relies on an ethic of respecting my wishes, and eliciting my cooperation.

The public school gets my money by using force

Contrast the private school with the public school district, which (I think) would enroll my daughter in its own preschool, tuition-free, if I chose. Whether or not I see value in the district, though, I must set aside money for it every month. Twice a year, the bank that holds the mortgage on my house sends a check to the district. I pay the district regardless of whether I think it is well managed (it isn’t), has great academic results (they’re so-so), or supports my views about education (are you kidding me?).

Did I consent to this financial transaction? No. Must I follow through with it month after month, year after year? Yes.

I am not entirely without recourse. I can vote yes or no to levy questions on the ballot. I can also select from several candidates for the school board, most of whom will be endorsed by the teachers union–the very party with whom they will “negotiate” contracts and thereby spend my money. And as many scholars point out, voting is irrational; the costs exceed the benefits, with my single vote having negligible effects. So while I do have a voice, it’s the equivalent of a spit in the ocean.

Don’t get me wrong. My money is taken from me with consent. But it’s not my consent. It’s the consent of 50 percent plus 1 of the several thousand other people who vote, many of whom will be district employees with financial and career interests at stake.

If I’m still not satisfied, can I act on my dissatisfaction by not sending a check to the district? Yes, but only if I’m willing to have law enforcement officials (eventually) seize my house for non-payment of taxes, after which the district will get its tax money anyway.

So the school board can determine how much it wants to spend, tell everyone within some lines on the map how much they must pay to the board, and then wait for the money to come in. It’s a sweet deal if you can get it, but that’s the logic of financing-by-force.

School choice models, by the way, don’t remove the use of force to financing schooling, but at least they decentralize the spending of that money. If government is to be involved in some way in the financing of schools, the model that most respects the individual is to give people tax credits for donations to schools and scholarship-granting organizations.



First published by the Center of the American Experiment