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Commentary

Should Governments Monopolize Education?


     
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What follows is a revised version of a letter I wrote for our County Tax Assessor early last year with the addition of links to a couple of articles in which Mike Hammock and I summarize some of the research on education monopolies and a few other light edits. My request for a property tax refund still stands.

A non-trivial portion of our City and County property taxes go to pay for City and County schools. As our family does not plan to use the City or County schools at any point, I would like to request an exemption from the portion of our property taxes that would go to fund schools we do not plan to use and a refund of back taxes that went to pay for schools we did not, do not, and will not use.

One could argue that we enjoy spillover benefits from government-provided education. While this is a common justification for government intervention in the educational sphere, it is both theoretically and empirically suspect. First, research suggests that any spillover benefits come almost exclusively from basic literacy and numeracy. Second, the structure of state-provided education suggests that the goal of government education is not provision of the socially efficient quantity of basic education. More research suggests that governments run schools not to educate students but to inculcate them with particular values (see this paper in particular; it’s a rough draft, but it is consistent with other findings). I’m sure that many taxpayers would find this inappropriate, just as they would find it inappropriate if I expected to use tax money to pay my pastor’s salary.

One could make a distributional argument for government education and claim that governments provide education in order to help the poor. Again, I am unconvinced because the structure of government-provided education suggests otherwise. Carefully-done empirical research shows that charter schools, for example, increase educational attainment for their pupils and for students who are “left behind” in traditional schools (see this study, for example).

Other research by economists who are experts on primary and secondary education–which economist Mike Hammock and I summarize in op-eds that appeared in The Tennessean and the Memphis Commercial Appeal–suggests that choice increases school quality. The difficulty of opening a charter school in Memphis suggests that even the distributional goals of government education are not being met. If the goal is to improve the lives of the poor in Memphis and Shelby county, there are more efficient ways to do it.

More fundamentally, I’m disturbed by the presumption that coercion is a necessary and appropriate way for people to interact with one another. Is the explicit threat that you will seize our property if we don’t pay up really necessary or civilized, particularly given the points I have made above? If I don’t want what my local Starbucks or Taco Bell has to offer, they don’t threaten to take our money or our house at gunpoint. I ask that you extend us the same courtesy. Failing this, please explain how and why it is appropriate and necessary for you to threaten us with violence if we don’t do as you command.

Since we do not plan to use City and County Schools and since they are not attaining the theoretically plausible goals of government-financed education, we would like to see if we can request a refund of the portion of our property taxes that goes to pay for them.

 


Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.
Full Biography and Recent Publications






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