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Educational Gimmickry

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The coming controversy in the debate in education policy –actually, it’s here already-will be over the matter of equal funding. In several states, the courts or legislatures have decided that it is unfair for communities with high-priced real estate to have better schools than communities with lower-priced real estate. Their solution is to have the state government dole out money to the school districts equally. That has upset people in the more affluent areas, but it cheers egalitarians everywhere.

In most states, government school districts are financed by taxes on the assessed value of the real estate in those districts. This naturally leads to disparities in school budgets. The schools in an affluent county usually have more money and nicer facilities than the schools in a poor county in the same state. Per-pupil spending is often higher among the rich than among the poor. Some people think that is unfair and have done something about it. In Vermont and elsewhere, the state courts have said the practice is illegal and has to stop. As a result, in some states the revenues from property taxes are sent to the state capitals where they are then distributed among the states’ school districts on an equal per-pupil basis. That, in turn, has upset some wealthy people, notably author John Irving in Vermont, who believe that court-ordered cross-subsidies nullifies their decisions to buy homes in better school districts. In at least one state, Michigan, the property tax has been replaced entirely as a school-funding source by the sales tax, which is collected and distributed evenly by the state government.

This seems to be an irreconcilable conflict that will engender increasing bitterness in years to come. Let’s look at each side. The egalitarians argue that state constitutions hold, and most people believe, that every child has a right to a good education. If we accept the principle for argument’s sake, can gross disparities in the quality of public schooling be justified? That would seem to conflict with the egalitarian premise of public schools.

To the egalitarian argument, the pro-public-school opponents of equalization would reply that the United States has a tradition of local control of schools and that their communities ought to be able to spend as much as they want on their children’s education without having limits imposed by the needs of other communities. Irving said the new Vermont policy smacks of Marxism, and he has started his own school to avoid the policy.

Both arguments seem strong. How can this dispute be resolved? If we side with equalization, we sacrifice cherished local control. If we side with local control, we sacrifice the equal right to education.

As Oliver Hardy might have said: well, government, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.

This is what comes of government declaring bogus rights. In truth, no one has a right to have his children educated at the expense of someone else. Rights identify the peace actions people may take free of interference by government and others. The right to have education paid for by the taxpayers is a contraction since it entails the forcible taking of money from citizens who are just minding their own business. Everyone has a right to educate his own kids, and himself, but no one may compel others to contribute.

Once we clear away the phony right, the equalization problem disappears. Parents should be free to buy as much education for their children as they like, regardless of whether it is more or less than what their neighbors buy for their kids. There will be differences in education quality, as there are differences in the quality of shoes and clothing. (However, many successful people have modest educational backgrounds.)

But what about the poor? Two answers: First, if anyone thinks the government schools are educating the poor, they are not keeping up with the news. Second, before there was government education in the United States, everyone was poor by today’s standards. Yet America had the most literate, dynamic, and enterprising society on earth.

The path to education is paved with freedom, not compulsory leveling.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.