Externalities from Illiberty: Benefits of Socioeconomic Integration

Edit: I just realized there’s a similar argument from earlier today arguing for public schools as a “moral adjustment”. I’ll have to think more about this, but it seems pretty unreasonable expecting parents to send their kids to the vastly worse public school without expecting that all other parents of their class will do the same. Law is the only way.

A lot of people on Twitter today are arguing about the merits of government policy that advances public education by taxing private schools. That’s a bad idea. We shouldn’t tax private secondary institutions – we should get rid of them.

I’ve discussed this idea before, but it’s worth considering in terms of externalities on the margin. Normal discussions of elite educational privilege juxtapose the yearly expenditure per pupil at a public school in Camden against Andover, or something.

This is not the best metric. While many failures at the local level may be traced to a lack of funding, institutional arrangements are far more important. By this I mean, kids of smart, working professionals ensure a good education for their students not only with a higher tax outlay, but by constantly demanding teachers to live up to their potential.

In fact, you’ll find teachers in affluent suburbia complain about the over involvement of affluent parents in their teaching process. I can remember both my parents dealing with pretty big problems at my pretty good public middle school and very good private (international) high school. (My parents are actually huge believers in public education. Except even they’re not nuts enough to send me to such in India).

That teachers are constantly held to a higher standard institutionally forces the administration (which was, granted, decidedly shitty at my high school) to bring in better teachers and provide a better curriculum.

Rich parents will stop at nothing to make their kids’ education world class. Now let’s say the government passed a law forcing me – and ten similar friends – to go to the crappy high school across the river. They also passed a law preventing us from using private educational services to bypass the public system.

Even if the school in question received no more public funding, our parents would do their best to make sure the education was of a higher quality. Not immediately, but eventually: through more conversation with the administration and perhaps even private charity. The presence of rich kids in a poor class room pays huge dividends to the disadvantaged kids in the classroom.

At a microscopic level, this experiment is almost bound to fail by bureaucratic paralysis. But, more broadly, if a new law required that all kids may be randomly assigned to any public school in the area, and private schools were banned, affluent parents would ensure all schools that their kid might end up at were the best possible. They would vote their own property tax rate up, and finance huge fundraisers. They would have no other choice, lest their dear little son end up at a bad school.

There is huge public gain for every marginal transfer to this effect. Banning private schools would be necessary to prevent the rich from opting out of the system altogether. It’s also unlikely this would hurt rich kids too much, since affluent parents, we might say, are completely price-inelastic when it comes to the quality of their kids education. It just means less money for a ski vacation. Boo hoo. (Actually, if you subscribe to the public good externality hypothesis that I do, even this would be pretty small. But rich white and asian parents also experience disutility when their kids interact with lots of blacks wearing hoodies, so who knows about the welfare loss there…)

This would eliminate any need for broader governmental subsidies, and might even make obsolete the Department of Education. This is illiberty, but so is taxation, and so is the minimum wage. I’m not appealing to the libertarians who want an end to all government but the liberals who think some forms of illiberty are better than others. This is no different.

The best way to help society is to align the private incentives of the rich with the public goals of the poor.

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4 comments
  1. Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. That’s quite a philosophy you’ve got.

  2. Bryan Willman said:

    Aside from the awful political slant, there’s another issue with this whole line of thought – it won’t actually work, and won’t actually produce anything like the results you expect.

    I know this because in one way or another it has been tried in the United States.

    Why would it fail? Let us contemplate the ways:

    1. Well off parents would simply move, very far if need be, to be in a favorable geography. This has actually happened in a number of US cities, most famously Saint Louis where people moved across the state line. It is actually one of the main mechanisms used by the middle to upper classes in the US today. Never underestimate the pressures this can create.

    2. It is impossible to “bypass” the effects of parenting itself – and in particular, the well-off parents pushing their children hard, spending time with them outside of school, etc., could grow large in importance, and make the inequalities you seek to address worse rather than better.

    3. The ability of fair sized groups of well off and well connected parents to marginalize some groups of students has to be seen to be believed. Forcing everybody into the same school jurisdiction does NOT assure that the “elite” will raise the effective standard for everybody. It might. Or it might mean spectacular forces applied to in effect create rifts inside schools.

    Indeed, “banning the bypassing of the state schools” could lead to a dystopia where public school is a total waste of time for everybody, and all real learning occurs in private clubs, sunday schools, and the like.

    So aside from being fascist, and indeed unconstitutional in the US, it just wouldn’t work.

    But even if it were, why would it fail? Let us contemplate the ways:
    1. Well off parents would simply move, very far if need be, to be in a favorable geography. This has actually happened in a number of US cities, most famously Saint Louis where people moved across the state line.

  3. BenK said:

    I have seen a similar argument made, less cogently and more flamboyantly, on Slate. It is a poor policy suggestion for a number of reasons, but a sufficiently fatal reason is that ‘public school’ as we know it – all inclusive, required, grade/age centered, teaching a fixed core curriculum – was a bad idea from the start and continues to be a bad idea. It did work for FDRs main purpose of reducing head of household unemployment by taking young men out of the workforce; and it worked temporarily to produce educated factory workers; but even that benefit collapsed in a couple decades. You assume that the public school model can work, but it simply cannot. No allotment of national resources – and by this, I am imagining broadly – will achieve the actual stated goals of a quality education which promotes the full potential for happiness and productivity of the next generation and the ones after that using this system.

    Is it possible that your proposal will make the system better, rather than worse, on the margin? I’m not sure; what I do know is that the resulting system will still not come close to achieving its stated goals and that a system which would is even more radical than the one you advocate – dismantling the current system, in many ways, rather than forcing everyone into the mold.

    The greatest successes at the moment, by the way, are at the magnets and in home schooling; not at the private schools. Your model does not address these.

  4. ‘ Law is the only way.’

    You’re only making yourself look worse. Do you ever ‘think’ about the implications of what you write? You’re in the company of some pretty nasty historical characters here.

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