Incentives matter

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that public schools are charging kids and parents fees to help make up for budget shortfalls.  Various school districts are charging fees for a variety of things including registration, technology, special activities like cross-country, and even graduation.

A family featured in the article paid over $4,400 to the public schools, in addition to $2,700 in property taxes that goes to fund education.

One photo caption in the article explains that a student had to choose band over choir because of the fees.  Another student chose track over cross-country because of fees.

The mother of band member lamented:

It’s high school. You’re supposed to be able to try different things and see what you like.

I understand.  That is certainly the model of public education we grew up with.  But, that’s part of the problem.

We’ve funded education through the third-party taxpayer dollars for so long that looking at the costs now makes us uneasy.  Several generations of parents have been able to send their kids to public schools and let their kids take full advantage of what is offered without having to consider the cost we incur on taxpayers.

We’re not used to making the full economic evaluation — the price/value decision — that we make for many other goods.  We have grown accustomed to getting about $11,000 per year per child per year of education for what appears to be free (I doubt many people even know the cost per pupil of their local public schools).

That’s not a tough choice to make.  Most people will accept $11,000 of “free”* stuff (*no incremental cost to the user).  Many people will even accept it if that $11,000 worth of public schools is only worth the equivalent of $4,000 of private schools.

Free is free, right?  Few people would turn down a free car (paid for by others) that cost $30,000 to build, even if a very similar car was available for $20,000 to buy.

If other people didn’t pay for the $30,000 car, the company that builds it could not  compete with the company that makes the $20,000 car.

While I sympathize with the mother’s lament because the education model appears to be changing from an open bar to more of a cash bar, I think it’s a good thing.

It might cause parents and kids accept the full economic evaluation.  Things that provide marginal value to students might go away or go into the private market.

To parse the mother’s statement, while high school became a place to try new things over the last few decades, I’m not sure that’s the proper role for it.  High school should be a place where kids learn things.  Life is where we try new things.


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