Me and Noah, down by the schoolyard

Noah Singman (nsingman) and I (and several others, as well) are bouncing back and forth on education funding in a comment thread on , which you can see in its entirety here. I wanted to drag a particular part of this discussion back to the top of the board, though, because I don’t want it to get buried. For those just joining us, Noah is a Libertarian – and one whose intelligence I respect a great deal, by the way – and what has asserted itself is the idea of government funding of ed vs. a pure free market approach. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’d encourage you to read what he has to say for himself – I don’t want to be guilty of mischaracterizing or setting up a straw man here, because the question deserves serious attention, not rhetorical posturing. Even to the extent that I disagree with Noah’s stance, it’s important that we talk about it because there are those in Washington, I think, who are interested in moving us toward something like what our Libertarian friends support.

Anyway, Noah says, essentially: “I don’t support [state funding of education] politically, because I don’t believe that education should be provided by the government. However, unlike federal funding, state funding of education is clearly constitutionally valid.”

So this means that in principle you’d oppose local funding as well, then. Which is the pure Lib line, and you’d argue that ed ought to be a for-profit competitive business like anything else.

Fair enough. But it also leads me around to a question that some of my other Lib-leaning buddies have never parsed to my satisfaction. There’s a real glorification of the business world implicit in all this that I buy a whole lot less than I did before I actually worked in a few big businesses.

To wit, the dynamics of that pure-biz environment are inherently geared toward providing as little as possible – you will never provide X for $Y if you can get away with providing X-1 for Y$. The motivation, driven by the basic principles of economics, is always toward selling less for more. Maximize the ratio of revenue to cost, etc. (I’m going to do this without resorting to the Enron argument, by the way, even though I worked at US West before it was bought by Qwest, and corporate bad behavior watchers here might note that Q was the company that gave us Joe Nacchio.)

You might respond that competition solves this (and here please correct me if I misstate your position – I’m drawing on debates I’ve had with other Libertarians in the past, and might miss a nuance or two).

I’d say no, it doesn’t, because in this kind of environment you eventually work your way to a state of market equilibrium where ed product becomes commodified. All the cost that can be driven out, given the technology, market dynamics and best practices of the moment, has been, and you now have a few large providers (this market will inherently favor large companies because they’ll be best positioned to minimize HR costs and to capitalize on economies of scale in procurement – in many ways this would be similar to the retail bookstore sector) offering essentially the same service at the same price. So your ed choices (unless you’re wealthy) are going to be between Wal*Mart Elementary and K*Mart Elementary. McDonald’s and BK. Bud and Coors. Lowest common denominator.

You can easily reply that we already have plenty of crappy lowest common denominator education in America, and not only will I agree with you, I’ll give you the addresses of some schools you can visit that will prove your point in spades.

However, arguing that we can get crap a lot cheaper than we are now (no, this isn’t what Noah would say, this is me briefly engaging in rhetorical posturing) doesn’t solve my problem, which is that we need an outstanding educational system, not a cheap and efficient one. And the ed systems that are kicking our asses on all measures around the globe look more like centralized government systems than they do free market systems, unless you’re aware of a nation that I haven’t seen yet.

I’m a pretty strict constructionist myself on most Constitutional issues, and have plenty of faith in the power of business to solve problems. But in a lot of cases I find that my deep-seated philosophical notions run headlong into real-world dynamics that the philosophies don’t account for. I console myself that no theory of economics or governance ever concocted works in the real world quite like it works on paper, so I’m always open to the idea that I might have to consider practical measures that I’m philosophically uncomfortable with. No matter how many different directions I come at the education issue from (and here I should note that since I have a BA, an MA, a PhD, and have taught at six colleges and universities, so I’ve had ample opportunity to think about various problems and their equally various possible solutions), I just can’t see how going the free market route makes anything better. When I think about what I know about the worlds of education and business, all I see is a trainwreck.

My best guess about a fully privatized US educational system is so dire that even the concept of “more government involvement” doesn’t scare me in comparison.


  • Though I work in a for-profit institution, grants are invaluable to our survival as much as they are to a state institution.
    Student’s who come to this school pay a lot of money, almost three times as much as the local community college. About 2/3 of our student body receives grants that cover at least 50% of their tuition. After reading all of the posts, I’m trying to visualize what it would be like here if students didn’t receive any grants. I can see it playing out two ways.
    In both cases I see myself being unemployed, so I guess the rest doesn’t really matter. No, I’m kidding. Well, not kidding about being unemployed but about not caring.
    One way, I don’t initially see a change (in the number of students going through the admissions process). Regardless of how much aid a student gets, some of them would still make the poor choice of attending. Why is that a poor choice? It would be a poor choice because most likely only a small percentage would actually earn their degree. And not for nothing, but what good does a $22,000 associates degree do for you? For the larger percentage, they would discontinue before getting their degree. This means that they would be at least $5,500 in debt. Six months after discontinuing they would start getting their loan repayments booklets. Now I don’t want to over generalize here, but with our demographics, there is a very high likelihood that many would then default on that loan because the repayments would be too high. So, that means that they get screwed, we get screwed, and the loan provider gets screwed.
    In the second, the cost of attendance would be too high and students wouldn’t register. Then the school would close and everyone here would be out of a job.
    So yeah, I’d have to say that I’m not to happy when thinking about the government cutting grants, either partially or fully.

  • Education funding
    It is the government’s responsibility to make use of it’s resources as best it could; and to do it it is the government’s responsibility to develop its resources. People are the government’s main resource and it behooves the government to see that it has an educated workforce.
    Larry Furman

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