School funding: are you a sociopath or a guilt-ridden religious zealot?

This blog post discusses the federal government’s effort, with Ohio Congressman John Boehner, (R-8) as a co-sponsor, to nationalize a school voucher program. One of the excellent comments posted is this one from Paul Lambert (who frequently leaves thoughtful comments that are so thoughtful that, if I read them at night, I know I have to wait until I have a rested head in the morning in order to respond the best I can) of Save the Hilliard Schools:

Bad voucher ideas have given vouchers a bad name.

Monopolies are rarely a good thing. Economists have a concept of ‘natural monopoly,’ which refers to a situation where the cost of infrastructure is so great that once one entity stakes out the territory, there is no economic incentive for a competitor to build a parallel infrastructure. For example, once one company builds a natural gas distribution network through a city, no one else will bother. Generally, when such a natural monopoly exists, the government takes the role of regulator to protect the consumers. Hence the ICC and its offspring, the FCC, and all the state public utility commissions.

We used to think telephone networks were like this, which is why Congress granted AT&T monopoly status years ago. But technology changed (cable tv and cellular in particular) and now we have lots of choice in our local phone service — at least if you live in a metro area.

We have a similar situation with the schools I think. Many believe school systems are a natural monopoly, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In a metro area, in Ohio at least, we typically have a poor urban core surrounded by a collection of wealthy suburbs. This is nothing more than new age segregation, just as surely as if there were “po’ folks keep out” signs on the suburban town limits. I think one of two things should happen: a) all the metro area school districts should be merged and any kid in the district should be able to attend any school they want (transportation provided); or, b) every kid in the metro area is given a voucher worth the average per-student spending in the metro area, and that voucher can be used to pay 100% of the tuition in any school in any district in the area.

In the rural areas, the situation is different. Population density is too low to afford much in the way of choice. Land values are low as well. But there are two distinct situations here too. In the case of agricultural areas, there is a sustainable economy with high employment, but not a lot of wealth (land poor as they say). It is reasonable public policy, in my opinion, to make it worth being a farmer, and if that means subsidizing the schools, so be it.

But there are other rural areas which aren’t farmland, such as southeastern Ohio. My family settled in Lawrence County in the 1790s (my gggggrandfather was a Revolutionary War veteran), and there are many generations of my family buried there. But there aren’t so many of my relatives left there today. Just as my ancestors left Europe to seek a better economic climate, my generation bailed out of post-industrial Appalachia to find better places to raise our families. We should not subsidize the cost of living for families in places without a viable economy just because there are many who would rather take Welfare than move.

Therein lays the most difficult problem of all. How do you incent the parents to go find a better place to live, yet not punish the kids of the parents who are too stupid or lazy to move?

Sam Kinison once said we shouldn’t be sending food to Ethiopia, we should be sending them U-Hauls.

Same idea.

Here’s my response:

That’s an excellent comment, Paul.

What you drill down to – mobility – is something I too have gotten to when I think about this issue. But what you’re drilling down to, also, is personal choice, and who’s responsibility is it (if anyones) to figure out what will make someone do something that other people think is more desirable than what the person whom you’re trying to change is already doing?

This concept is the crux of mental health intervention. People have to feel so uncomfortable that they have no other choice but to change.

However, 1) the person has to usually be really, really almost unfathomably miserable and 2) people’s tolerance for a crappy life, depending on their religious zeal, can be pretty resilient.

Now – does that mean we do tough love and drop the social supports we provide, via public or private dollars?

Well – we’re human, and we like to believe humane. So, the likelihood of dropping social supports isn’t very high in this society – although obviously there are plenty of politicians willing to do a lot less, as well as those who want to do a lot more.

And frankly, I think that choice – do more or do less – is driven by the level of sociopathology an individual possesses. The more you can detach yourself from the plight of others, the more we say you have no conscience.

The more people tend to want to help, the more we say that those folks must feel guilty over what they have.

Where people fall in terms of trying to set public school funding straight isn’t all that far off from this analysis, except that we couch the efforts in terms of economy: we want to create a better workforce and grow innovation and new industry and jobs and so on. All true, all worthy pursuits.

But in the end, we’re still stuck with a finite amount of resources and have to make choices.

If I were a conspiracy theorist when it comes to the origin of religion, I would say that the need to direct people as to whether they part with their resources on behalf of others, or not, is inextricably linked to the zealousness of some religions for certain types of solutions.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “School funding: are you a sociopath or a guilt-ridden religious zealot?

  1. Again, Paul – you make several salient points. But, alas, I’m headed to my public school to volunteer in my son’s classroom and continue my facade as able room mother. By now, however, I’m sure that everyone knows the truth about me, that just don’t have anyone else who’s willing to come in.And isn’t that the story of some schools’ poor performance?

  2. Jill:Thanks for the comments and kind words.Interesting point about the potential connection between religious zealousness and government-imposed charity.My Dad saw conspiracy in everything, and, as a party-line Democrat, he was sure big business was the root of all evil. Teenage rebellion caused me to dismiss most of what he said on this topic, and a lifetime spent in the business world reinforced my trust in the free market (vs government).Then, a couple of years ago, I was invited to: a) participate in the development of a new Comprehensive Plan for our township; b) join the Board of Trustees of our local Education Foundation; and, c) become a founding member of a commission appointed by the school superintendent to improve community communications relative to school finance. An awakening took place. I began to see first hand the connections between the real estate developers, the municipal government, the school board and the teacher’s union.From those experiences, I developed this simple model: a school system is a pumping engine which sucks up tax dollars from both the local community and the State and sprays those dollars back out into the local economy. There are those who expend great effort to gain control of where the hose gets pointed, because it’s big money ($200 million/yr in our district). The public rhetoric is all about education and doing what’s best for the kids. The real story is the battle over control of the money hose.The situation is no different at the state and national level. Everyone is wrestling for control of the hose while hiding their true motivations behind more noble facades. So you end up with things like Halliburton, and all the other special interest groups.We Americans are at our best when we’re the underdog scrapping our way to the top. The old Hertz “We’re #2, we try harder” is a good mantra. We thrive in competition, but tend to get a little stupid and a lot corrupt when we actually make it to the top. Would we have invaded Iraq if the Soviet Union were still around?So I’m for little government not Big Government. I favor competition in almost everything because I think it’s the only effective control mechanism in a country as large and diversified as ours.The real enemy is citizen apathy. My hope is that the blogsphere plays a role in changing that.

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