Crying Over Free Milk

Given the lively discussion taking place in the comments section of this post, it seems appropriate to post an op-ed I've been working on, focusing on the importance of means-testing benefits. Comments welcome.

Crying Over Free Milk

Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? Mothers use this adage to warn their daughters not to put out before marriage – which always makes me wonder what kind of mother would compare her own daughter to a cow.

This analogy also explains what’s wrong with the current system of public education. Many parents reason, “Why pay for private school when public school is free?”

Not entirely free, of course – we all pay for public school through property taxes. But parents have no choice in the matter; we pay for public school whether we use it or not. Parents who want to send their kids to private school must pay twice: once through property taxes for public school and once again through tuition for private school.

So it comes as no surprise that few parents—apart from the very wealthy and the fervently religious—are willing to bear the double cost of private school tuition, while also giving up free tuition to public school. And since demand for private schools is largely driven by these two groups, many get the mistaken impression that private school is only for religious fundamentalists or the wealthy elite.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We could have an education system that provided universal access for all children without making school choice prohibitively expensive for all but the very rich. The key to this system would be threefold: means-tested benefits, elimination of territorial-based school funding, and school vouchers.

The strongest argument for a system of public education is charity. Not all parents can afford the costs of school tuition, and we want to make sure that children of less well-off families are not denied the same opportunities that their wealthier peers enjoy. But if this is the case, why provide free education to everyone, including the rich? Surely most of us can bear the cost of tuition. Why not provide publicly financed education only to those who truly cannot afford it?

And what possible justification is there for tying public school funding to geographically defined tax rates? School districts in wealthier neighborhoods get generous funding, while schools in poorer neighborhoods do not. This often segregates children along racial and economic lines, providing children of wealthy white parents with more funding than they reasonably need while leaving poor black children in underfunded failing schools. Perhaps this is intended to mirror user fees, but if that is the case, it would make more sense to have parents pay the cost of schooling directly, and have the government pay for the cost of poor children’s tuition out of general revenues.

Some argue that public schools are valuable for reasons other than mere charity: public schools instill civic virtues and prepare us for life in a multicultural society. But even if we concede that public schools do a better job of instilling democratic values than private schools—a claim that is dubious at best—parents who prefer government schools would still have that option. Poor children could attend public school for free, as they do now, or they could use vouchers to attend private school. Children of wealthier families could also attend public school – at a price. Since parents would no longer be paying a portion of their property taxes for universal education, they would face the true cost of their decision between public and private, without the bias of getting the public milk for free.

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I don't have it in front of

I don't have it in front of me, but I remember that Jefferson's public education plan called for the community to donate the land (& buildings, I assume) for all grades. For the lower grades, all education would be free to everyone. For the upper grades, education would be free to people who couldn't afford it. For the highest grades (high school), it would be both means- and ability-tested. That is, only the brightest would receive assistance if they needed it. Jefferson's actual plan was much better than the free-for-all system we have now for which he is unfairly credited.
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Well, there is a very very

Well, there is a very very strong arguement that the more educated the entire populace of a State the better position the State is in economicaly, socialy, etc. Its more a matter of, "As an educated indivdual, I realize that everyone should have an education as it benefits not only them, but me, my neighbor and my neighbors neighbor, and as such I am willing to donate a small portion of my money to the cause".

the difference being, the Libertarian method is by voluntary donation, the current method (socialist method?) is a mandatory tax.

Glen, No typo. I am indeed


No typo. I am indeed suggesting that wealthy families would have to pay tuition on top of their tax bill for their kids to attend public schools. Note, though, that under my plan, the tax bill would only be paying for poor childrens' education - a true welfare program. I recognize that some wealthy families would still want whatever it is they believe public school produces that private schools do not. Plus, attaching a user fee to public schools would encourage parents to make rational decisions about the costs and benefits of private schools vs. public schools.

"Poor children could attend

"Poor children could attend public school for free, as they do now, or they could use vouchers to attend private school. Children of wealthier families could also attend public school -- at a price."

Was that a typo? Did you intend to say children of wealthier families could also attend *private* school at a price (i.e., without vouchers)? Or are you suggesting that wealthy families would have to pay tuition (on top of their tax bill) for their kids to attend public schools?

I think I get it: Everyone

I think I get it: Everyone needs an education – rich or poor – so they deserve it. The rich are able to supply the funding for public schools/vouchers, so they should be compelled to provide it. This is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, right? And this is called “thick libertarianism”? Interesting. I had always called it something else.

If American's can agree that

If American's can agree that an educated populace is important enough that they like the idea of free public schools, why then is the thought of voluntarily donating money for the education of a poor child so horrible to them too?

I have yet to really think through the Public Education problem, as a Libertarian I don't like the idea, but the above always seems to stifle my feelings.

Let's say there were no public schools, only private, but that enough of them existed so as to give the same level of education to all children (up through high school for this arguement). Now, obviously there will be people that cannot afford to send their child to one of these schools; though in reality, if the taxes taken from someone for public education were no longer taken, these poorer people would not have as hard a time sending their child to school, especially a private school where the cost of educating a single child would most likely be much less that the current public system requires. But there will still be a segment of the population that cannot afford this, and lets assume that these people also feel their child *must* have an education and enroll their child in a private school, couldn't the remainder of the amount of money for that child's education be made up through scholarship programs? Many University's already offer money to students in such a fashion, via Alumni donations and the such. Why would such a system not work for public lower grade level education?

Like I said, I haven't really thought about this, so don't yell at me, I'm not advocating it, just wondering...

Steve, The argument against


The argument against that is that the positive externalities of education are fairly small relative to the already internalized benefits, so we would expect most people to already make the efficient decision regarding how much education they and their children should receive.

Eric, I happen to agree with you, but the notion that everyone should have the opportunity of education is widespread, and I'd rather show how we can more efficiently achieve that objective than argue against the intuition.

Micha, could you go further

Micha, could you go further into this? or have a link or something?


I think it was Milton

I think it was Milton Friedman who first made that argument; I don't know the source.