Wichita Public Schools as a Public Good

An audio recording of this article may be heard here.

Supporters of the proposed bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita, Kansas public school district, portray Wichita’s public schools as a “public good.” Therefore, the entire community should pay for — and be happy to pay for — the ongoing operations of the schools, and should be willing to invest in a large bond issue to pay for capital improvements and new facilities.

But is public education a public good?

Economists tell us that one characteristic of a public good is that people can’t be excluded from consuming it. This is the case with national defense. No one can choose not to benefit from it. Schools are different, though. It is possible to exclude people from schools simply by locking the doors. Businesses of all types do this. In fact, USD 259 chooses to deny service to about 0.5% of its students each year (average expulsion rate for the last 11 years).

Another characteristic of a public good is non-rivalrous consumption, meaning that consumption by one person doesn’t diminish another’s ability to consume. Broadcast radio and television are such goods. But public education is not this type of good. Overcrowding is given as one of the reasons for this bond issue, and education bureaucrats continuously clamor for smaller class sizes. So overcrowding must — at least according to public school administrators — reduce the quality of the education experience. Consumption, therefore, is rivalrous, and public education fails this test as a public good.

These two characteristics are the traditional definitions of a public good, and public education fails both tests. But today a different, murkier, definition is often applied. I quote at length from Is High School Football a Public Good? by Jim Fedako, published at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. While this article speaks of football, we may remember that athletics are a large portion of the proposed bond issue for the Wichita public schools. His argument also applies to most aspects of the public schools.

But no one really applies the technical definition to derive public goods. … Instead, the collectivist definition — the vacuous, yet now standard, definition — applies the general welfare argument to elevate football from a private activity to that of a public good. The argument goes something along these lines: football is beneficial because it prepares boys for adulthood, keeps them off the streets after school, and provides them with a place where they can excel.

The public goods argument as currently stated says that the benefits that accrue to the child also accrue to society in general. In this collectivist view, raising children is the role of society since society benefits when it’s done right — a better work force — and suffers when it’s done wrong — more crime and criminals.

But this argument can be applied to almost any expenditure that parents make while raising their children. Better to be jumping on ice or practicing a roundhouse kick than to be out loitering on street corners. Why limit the concept of public goods to football, basketball, baseball, softball, etc? Based on recent history, it is only a matter of time before public goods subsume more activities, with the costs spread over the community in the form of increased taxes: the complete socialism of parenting.

The problem with the concept of public goods is that it misdirects the debate. In modern society, every action I take has a perceived positive or a perceived negative external effect on other members of society, and most of the time there are perceived positive and negative external effects occurring simultaneously. When I mow my lawn, one neighbor perceives the noise as a negative — reducing calm and tranquility — while another neighbor perceives my well-kept lawn as a benefit — invoking calm and tranquility.

I use the qualifier “perceive” because the whole public goods argument for coerced funding of football teams is based on the perception of the observer. The parents of the football player, the player himself, as well as local high school football fans, perceive the team and games as a positive for the community. Some say that it benefits the kids, while others say it strengthens the community. Both views see tax-funded sports, football in particular, as a winner for the community.

Yet the parent struggling to make ends meet each month, the retiree living on an inflation-robbed pension, the lover of freedom, etc., see their ever-increasing tax bill as a negative. For the parent, a child’s dental appointment goes wanting for the sake of the football team; for the retiree, the higher tax bill comes at the cost of a colder house in the winter; for lovers of freedom, additional money lifted from their wallets is another slap in the face by collectivists.

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