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The Nonexistent Case for Public Schooling in Rich Neighborhoods
March 23, 2010 Education

Our family lives in Pittsford, NY. It is widely understood to be one of the two nicest and richest communities in the Rochester area. A major reason we located here is that the small home we purchased would very likely to be easy to resell in the event of (yet another) career move. In 2007, the Pittsford schools spent $100.7 million to educate approximately 5900 students in grades K through 12. This means that the schools were spending an average of $17,068 per student on education. The proposed property tax levy for 2010-2011 is almost $85 million. Federal data indicates that in 2007 $65 million was generated in local property taxes, the rest from state and federal contributions.

What are the canonical justifications for public expenditure and provision of education? There are at least three.

  1. Public goods arguments: The major reason offered for taxing everyone then providing schooling for free (say the statists) is that education is a public good in the traditional sense. Since my education produces benefits for other people (e.g. I am a better voter, I commit less crime, etc.) and I cannot capture all of those benefits, then I choose to acquire a suboptimally low level of schooling.
  2. Distributional arguments:We need to have publicly funded schools because some people are simlpy too poor to send their children to schools that cost money. Hopefully it is obvious that even if you agree with this justification, it is, at best, merely a justification for subsidies to the lower income, and not a justification for subsidies to everyone, and certainly not a justification for the government RUNNING the schools on behalf of teachers’ unions.
  3. Behavioral arguments: Independent of income or free-rider problems, some people are just not sharp enough or unselfish enough to educate their children themselves, or to spend resources on the formal schooling of their children. Thus, without compulsory schooling laws and without free government schools, some children would be confined to lives of idiocy because of the irrationality and selfishness of their parents.

Let us reconsider each of these arguments not on their own merits, but rather as they apply to wealthy areas like the one that I live in. I’ve talked for years on this site, and will continue to do so in the future, about how these arguments in general are quite frail. For the sake of my point, let us simply accept them as legitimate and ask how they apply to Pittsford.

The Public Good Argument Reconsidered

The public good justification for public education is a sham on so many levels one does not know where to begin. As it pertains to the people living in the town of Pittsford, it is an even larger sham. The free-rider argument does not apply here. The argument suggests that I won’t send my kids to school because if everyone else sends their kid to school then I get to consume the benefits of their education without having to send my kid to school at all.

To even make the sort of public good argument I made above is too silly an idea to put into print, but that is the nature of the “public good” justification for subsidizing school. For anyone who lives in Pittsford or Brighton or some other similar community, quite the opposite is happening. Parents are so hyper-competitive about schooling that I know of schools here with wait lists for kindergarten and there are schools here asking 4 year olds to take admissions tests. People move to Pittsford precisely because its government schools are so excellent. And if you choose to not send your kid to school, it is believed that your child is falling behind the other children. There is just no way one can credibly argue that there is a public good reason to have government education here.

Is there anything to the public good argument? The best I can come up with is that some people have the belief that children and families need a “common experience” and also some unifying ideas taught to them to keep civil society together. If we don’t have government schools, then our children will learn all kinds of things (oh dear, who would wat intellectual and experiential diversity anyway?) and perhaps not even learn to worship at the altar of government and the elites. Thus, we force them into government run schools. But, this too, is a shallow justification. First, it is morally horrific. Second, it ignores the fact that private schools have an incentive to teach students and families things that are useful – particularly if they need to compete for students and dollars. Third, I would venture to say that there are far more community building aspects to our everyday lives than what simply happens in school. I challenge you to find someone in Pittsford, for example, who when asked about something that is “uniquely Pittsford” won’t answer “Wegmans” and the Canal in their top 4 answers. There are dozens of community organizations, events, locations, etc. that bring people together without the forced indoctrination we see in schools. And in the age of the internet, we simply do not need schools as a tool to communicate to the citizenry.

In other words, the public goods justification for tax supported schooling in rich areas is extremely weak. In fact, the destructive competition for status might lead some to argue that in wealthy areas, families ought to BE TAXED for sending their children to schools.

The “Poor are Unable to Afford It” Argument Reconsidered

Remember, I am not trying to make arguments against these justifications in general, I am asking how well they apply to my rich town of Pittsford. Here are some demographic facts about our town:

  • Median family income exceeded $106,000 per year in 2007
  • 1.5% of families in Pittsford live below the poverty line (national average is over 10%)
  • We have about 9,500 households and 7,300 families in the entire town
  • The town is over 97% white and Asian

Our family makes WELL less than the median family income in our town, and we can easily afford to send our two children to Catholic schools. Is that easy for us? No. We bought an ugly 1960s split-level ranch. Our cars are each 6 years old and have 100,000 miles on it. We don’t travel by air to elaborate family vacations. Yet we do not really deprive ourselves of anything a typical family would want. In other words, while we budget our spending each month, we don’t exactly eat Ramen noodles every night. The poverty statistics indicate that there are very few families here that are not in as good a position as we are in. And driving and walking around our town certainly confirms this. There is not exactly a “lower income” neighborhood here. If it exists, I am living smack in the middle of it.

Even if we argued that each of the 7,300 families had 2 children, and 2% of them were poor – it would mean that 300 children did not have the means to afford the Catholic education we are providing for our children (and in a world of open competition, there is no doubt that costs across the board would be lower than this). And if we want to ignore the charitable inclinations of the 7,154 non-poor families, I guess one could make a case for subsidizing these 150 or so poor families. Well, the school property tax levy in Pittsford this year seems to be around $80 million – or about $10,960 per family.  But if we need to tax people just to make sure the poor can afford to send kids to school, is $80 million not a bit too much? Even if we TRIPLE the number of families we should fund, that means 450 families need help sending kids to school. At $80 million divided by 450, that is $178,000 in tax subsidies per year to each of these poor families. That is more than 10 times the amount that our public schools spend per student, so this is arguably at least 10 times to much in taxes we need to raise in order to take care of the “poor.” If you believe, as I do, that there are less than 150 families in Pittsford that desperately cannot afford to send children to our expensive schools, then we would be talking about over a half-million dollars per year we are raising per family to help ’em afford a $9,000 per year private school or $18,000 per year government school.

The best part of the sham, of course, is that families like ours, well below the median and averages, are paying $6,500 in property taxes (a portion of which goes to school) in order to send the children of RICHER families to the elite Pittsford government schools. Now THAT’s how progressivism works in 21st century America.

Hilariously, not only do we do this, but we also get tax subsidies from New York State and from the Federal government to help support our local schools. On what grounds?

The “People are Too Stupid and Selfish to Send Their Own Children to School” Argument Reconsidered

Well, if the people in Pittsford are too stupid and selfish to know that schooling is a good idea, then no one in America ought to be able to make any decision on behalf of their children, ever, about anything. Parents and families here have established a wide range of rich educational, cultural and recreational organizations and events. Would they be too stupid and shortsighted to add formal educational enterprises to the list of things they already do? Again, it is simply not credible to argue any of this applies to a place like Pittsford.

Conclusion

There is absolutely no (economic?) justification one can provide for public subsidization (much less public control) of schooling in a town as rich as Pittsford. I would make the argument that what I say above applies to areas half as wealthy as we are, but let’s no go there for now (for example, if we agree that people sort themselves into locations because of school quality, then the same issues arise within each district regardless of wealth). So, why despite the obvious inapplicability of market failure arguments in these communities, do rich areas nonetheless have government schools? We’ll explore this in the near future.

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