Who Should Bear the Cost of Public Education?

An interested reader posed a tough question this weekend that I wanted to put up for discussion. I’m going to shorten a lengthy email by getting to the point:

“I’m a 31-year old single gal, with a house I just bought and no plans to ever have kids. Why am I paying for other people’s public education through my taxes and impact fees? Do you think that’s fair?”

As a father of a 1-year old, you have no idea how many times public education has crossed my mind lately. I have both serious concerns and encouraging stories, but that’s a topic for another day. Who gets to pay for the public education of our kids; my kid?

The Status Quo

I guess the first question would be–who pays for it now? While I’m sure it varies from area to area, public education seems to be covered mostly by a combination of income taxes, property taxes, and assessments on new development.

Assessments pretty much cover the cost to build or upgrade schools for an increasing student population (a big issue in Florida). That leaves taxes as the primary operating source, which means that just about everyone who pays them is funding education, without discrimination. Kids or no kids, public or private education–you’re paying into the fund.

My question to the reader would be whether she benefited from public education growing up, but of course it would be an unfair one, since just about everything in government is a pay-as-you-go system. That means the money we’re paying in now is being used now, not correlating to something we did or will do at another time.

What’s the Alternative?

The most obvious alternative is to shift the burden of public education to the people who use it–those with kids in the public system.

A per-child tax system would assess families with kids attending public school with a special tax to cover the cost of their education. Whether this is a flat, per-child tax, or a more graduated or income-sensitive system, all of the cost of public education would now be covered by parents with younger kids.

Potential Downsides

The alternative I’ve shared has a few obvious downsides which I can see, and I’m sure you can spot more.

First, many people would argue that public education is the backbone of a society, necessary for the greater good and to our progress as a nation, and therefore a shared national responsibility.

Secondly, though the total cost of education would be the same, it would now be shared by only a fraction of the people who used to pay into the system, lowering taxes slightly for the many, while jacking them up for those with young kids. Can their budgets afford it?

Finally, a per-child system would shift a lot of the education cost to lower-income families, who currently essentially have their kid’s educations subsidized by higher-income taxpayers. While a more “equal-treatment” kind of system, per-child taxation may prove to be too much for poor families to take on, resulting in families who simply can’t afford to send their kids to school.

And that, my friends, is an interesting fundamental question (and one being discussed in the area of health care now)–is public education a fundamental right or a privilege?

Is There a Middle Ground?

No matter the question, it always seems like a good middle ground could be found with a little work. I’m sort of at a loss here–the case for shifting the burden makes sense on the one hand, but the arguments against it, particularly that of a shared national responsibility, are equally appealing.

What are your thoughts? Does your fellow reader have a point in that it’s unfair for her to pay for my kids to go to school, or is it something she’ll just have to live with? Can you think of, or have you seen, any alternative/hybrid systems in place for funding education?

Photo by moaksey

7 thoughts on “Who Should Bear the Cost of Public Education?

  1. I don’t currently have children in public school but I don’t begrudge my taxes supporting the education system. My taxes also pay for roads I will never drive on, health care services I will probably never access, a public transportation system I don’t use, a fire department I’ve never had to call on (and hope I never have to), and a host of other government-funded (or partially funded) programs and services that I don’t now and probably never will use.

    The “I don’t have kids, why should I pay for public education?” argument is selfish and short-sighted. It does not take into account the cost, both in economic and in human terms, of NOT providing educational and other services. Sure, we could start making every road a toll road, we could charge admission to the public library, we could tax only those families who send their children to public school, and so on, but it wouldn’t make for a better society. Consumer goods would cost more and the numbers of poor and disgruntled people would grow. Ultimately, society as a whole suffers.

    As a citizen and a community member, I’m glad that some part of my taxes are supporting the local school system. I live in a better community for it. Neither the tax system nor the public education system are perfect by any means but it’s far better to have them than not.

    1. All excellent points; thank you for sharing! The comparison to some of the other services is compelling, since many people, for example, own bicycles and never use roads that they pay for, etc…

  2. I have to agree with the wise words of the post above. I would also like to add this:
    It may be an extreme “either or” statement here, but I think there is much truth to it: We can invest in schools or we can invest in prisons. Really, what options are available when we take away a free and fair education from those who couldn’t afford it otherwise? Simply put: an investment in education is an investment in the community.
    You can also look at it practically. People move to certain neighborhoods because of quality schools. Businesses decide to move to a community because of quality schools and the educated workforce it can provide. When a school has poor schools, it not only cripples a community’s ability to attract business, it can also devalue a person’s home. Perhaps that is something that people without children might consider in this argument. I would hope, though, that the more ethical argument about our obligation to society would be more compelling than the practical argument.

    1. Very good point about the quality of a community being determined by the school! I know it’s definitely one of the first things I look at when I’m shopping for a place to live.

  3. The comments above are right on point. Better schools = higher property values. When the person that posed the original question sells her home she will likely see a direct correlation between the quality of the schools in her district and her home value.

    I buy my groceries at the grocery store with my own money, but my taxes fund others’ groceries. I (and my employer) pay my health insurance premiums, but my taxes fund programs like medicaid. The list could go on and on. We will all always pay taxes for things we don’t actually use.

    There is also the issue of the local tax base in addition to federal and state funding. Municipalities with high quality public schools likely have higher local taxes funding those schools because the residents there have voted to make that a priority and a higher percentage of their income goes to taxes to support that school district. That’s the case in the area where I live.

    1. The government cross-subsidies are seemingly endless.

      Your taxes are subsidizing Medicaid recipients, while taxes paid by the working uninsured are subsidizing your employer-provided insurance.

      In many states, taxes are higher on rental property than on owner-occupied homes, so landlords and tenants subsidize education for the children of homeowners.

      Is this a great country or what?

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