Should education be 'free'?

In this blog I’ve argued that the term “public” education generally, and unnecessarily, conflates two elements: universal free (or rather, taxpayer-financed) education, and uniform government-run education. Like most Americans, I believe the first is essential to a free people. I am more skeptical of the second.

Brigham Young actually disapproved of both.

In an 1877 address, he stated that “I am opposed to free education as much as I am opposed to taking away property from one man and giving it to another who knows not how to take care of it.” George Q. Cannon further explained, in 1881, “Let us advance education by individual effort … and not bring a child into the world and instill into its mind that because he is born somebody owes him an education … that they ought to be educated at the expense of the State; and when they are educated they then are to be sustained at the expense of the state. (www.sutherlandinstitute.org/uploads/vouchersvows.pdf)

As I’ve said before, I strongly support “free” public education. If anything, I think we need to devote a proportionately greater share of resources to children from disadvantaged families: They often have more educational deficits to overcome, and their educational failure has especially dire consequences. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for example, 75 percent of America’s state prison inmates, almost 59 percent of federal inmates, and 69 percent of jail inmates did not complete high school. (www.all4ed.org/files/SavingFutures.pdf)

But I also worry, as did early leaders of the LDS church, that we undervalue – and therefore squander – what we don’t pay for. Many proponents of health care reform note that consumers simply do not have enough “skin in the game” to make wise economic choices. With Medicare or the insurance company paying the bill, we lack the incentive to question expenditures or to shop for a better price.

School consumers DO shop, of course. They shop for houses in good school districts … if they can afford them. But educational consumer choices are still limited, and for many urban and rural families, nonexistent.

I taught, and still teach part time, in a Catholic school, where parents pay tuition. This creates a dynamic that isn’t always comfortable for teachers. Parents who are paying both property taxes and tuition feel they deserve some say in their children’s education, and school administrators who need to collect that tuition must pay attention to what they have to say. This can be awkward if the parent message is that Junior needs a good enough grade to stay eligible for the baseball team (for the record, I never received such a request, much less felt any pressure to accommodate such a request.) But overall I think we benefited from knowing that parents wanted educational value for their money. We also – certainly I also – felt affirmed that these parents had, after all, chosen to entrust their children to our tutelage and to our school.

As an added point – and I’ll return to this in later blogs – educational consumers do not get much say in how their money is spent. Companies that squander resources on top-heavy administrative bureaucracies or fail to control production costs regularly lose out to leaner, more efficient competitors. Higher education is beginning to face this reality (see last week’s Deseret News article on the coming higher education bubble. www.deseretnews.com/article/700132555/Is-higher-education-the-next-bubble-to-burst.html).

My worry is that K-12 education – which is far less competitive than higher education – will NOT face this reality, even as budget pressures mount. That’s bad news for teachers, parents, students, and taxpayers. Because education isn’t, after all, ever really free.

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