David R. Henderson  

Taking Up Bryan's Challenge

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I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

The above is a famous quote from Mark Twain and it relates to the challenge Bryan posed about whether there any countries in which there is too little education. I submit that Exhibit A of such a country is the good old US of A. The fact is that many people (I think most) do let schooling interfere with their education. As David Boaz once said (I'm paraphrasing), "You've got to hand it to the public school system. They take something inherently exciting like learning and make it boring." The simple fact of government provision of schooling--and the amount of time that takes out of our lives--means that it displaces education.

Also, I think commenter "quadrupole" on Bryan's post nailed it with his numerical example. And he stated it beautifully before he got to the numbers: "It's a margin thing."

Or, as I put it in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey, p. 298:

Government schools don't have to produce as good a product as the schools that depend on voluntary grants and tuition. Say you're currently sending your child to a tax-funded school, and you're not particularly satisfied with it. So you look around and find a Catholic school that charges $3,000 in tuition. For you to move your child to the Catholic school, you have to find the education there to be worth at least $3,000 more to you than the education at the tax-funded school is worth. $3,000 is a lot of money to most people. Therefore, the government school can compete effectively even by being substantially worse in the eyes of most parents. If you send your child to a private school, you're paying twice. For the public school you're not using, you pay through property taxes, state income taxes, and sales taxes, and for the private school you pay tuition. That creates a tough dilemma for most parents and is key to why government schools have close to a lock on the school market.

Sam Peltzman made this point in an empirical article in the Journal of Political Economy in the 1970s ["The Effect of Government Subsidies-in-Kind on Private Expenditures: The Case of Higher Education," JPE, 1973, Vol 81(1), pp. 1-27] and concluded that, with government provision, this theoretical possibility, for higher education at least, actually happened. Although they don't cite Peltzman, Harvey S. Rosen and Ted Gayer, in their Public Finance textbook, on pp. 140-141, make the point with indifference curves and budget constraints. When I teach this, I point out that even their exposition, although excellent, treats the government schooling as if none of the financing for it comes from taxes on any of the parents. [If they allowed for the government schooling to cost something to at least some parents, they would have to shift the budget line down.] And even with this strange assumption, they get the theoretical possibility that government schooling reduces the amount of education.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Bill writes:

So, is there an over-supply of schooling, yet a shortage of education?

Tom writes:

I understand the point about the difference between public and private, but as I think most of us at least intuitively know there can be a vast difference between even two adjacent school districts. Here in Minnesota we have a standardized math test that 11th graders take. Our school district's students consistently score 15 percentage points worse in "proficient" measurement than every other nearby school district. My daughter graduated in the top ten percent of her graduating class. She took most of the high-level math classes. When she arrived at college, she took the math placement test. Her results required her to take a non-credit - essentially remedial - math class in the first semester before being able to take a credit granting class in the second semester. Go figure the cost of that.

Jeff writes:

@Tom

It was my understanding that, in Minnesota, the family is free to send the child to whatever district the family wants to, and that the tax monies that go to the school are attached to the child. Is this not so?

I understand transportation costs can interfere with moving children from one district to another, but if my understanding above is correct, then I am quite surprised at such significant district differences when they are geographically near each other.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Many children have an inclination towards learning. They are excited by the prospect of gaining knowledge. They love to learn.

Schools exist to correct that flaw.

mark writes:

I think that kids educate themselves in large part. Good teachers help them. School districts do absolutely nothing to help learning. In a perfect world, teachers would be small business owners and sell their skills directly to consumers.

Paul writes:

I already see the schools, after massive tax increases for them, massive building projects, teacher pay increases are now charging for things like bus pickup, hundreds of dollars, sports also hundreds, about another hundred for books, paper and such.

Since, their greed, costs and bloat will continue, I suspect they will fee, cost, add on fees until they approach the exampled Catholic schools.

Think of it as a Mafia like bust out of the decaying Public School system, but instead of selling lobster and scotch out the back door and stiffing the suppliers, there getting in the last cadre of featherbedding union staff and making sure their pensions are loaded up before the door's are closed.

Also, right now, like their university counterparts, they are seeing how much the 'customer' can bear, what the squeal factor is.

Troy Camplin writes:

I second David Boaz. Consider this. When I graduated from high school, I loved to read, but I couldn't stand literature -- and esepcially poetry. The only exception to this was F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," which is so good that no teacher can suck the life out of it.

I go to college, major in recombinant gene technology (a tribute to good teachers: my biology and chemistry teacher was so good I went into biology), and take a literature class my sophomore year. It is awesome. I dabble in writing fiction. I even take an undergrad creative writing course my Senior year, because I had the hours available. Fast-forward through a few years of grad work in molecular biology, and I find myself in a M.A. program in English, followed by a Ph.D. in the humanities who loves literature, and cannot get enough poetry. In fact, I write poetry and verse plays. It took me years to overcome my high school literature education. Of course, I now use evolutionary biology in my literary analysis, so the biology educaiton didn't go to waste, but still . . .

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