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On Schools

2004-08-18

Category: politics

Soon, school will start again. All the runts who've been haunting the malls and parks will be properly contained again and the rest of us can go out unhindered. More importantly, the education will begin again. Since stupid, uneducated kids are worse than intelligent, well-educated kids, starting up the education is a good thing. Unfortunately, we have problems with our education system.

There are many opinions on how to handle schools. Some people want a federal cure for all our education ills. Some want the government to get out of the education business altogether. Some say to throw more money at the situation. Others say the problem is structural and money won't solve anything. Some even say that society has degraded to the point where no amount of education will keep kids from being stupid.

Though there are arguments for all of these things, I have a distinct opinion of my own. Those of you who are regular readers know that I am very strongly opinionated but I try to base my thoughts on logic. In the attempt to explain my opinions, I will start with the very ideas of education and, with a suitable amount of reasoning, defend the full growth of my philosophy. If you disagree with any of my points, make sure to say so in the comments section at the end. Define your arguments clearly if you want them to be taken seriously.


First, formal education is a system that we set in place to train children to be competent members of society. That's the goal, anyway. The fact that this doesn't always work is one of the ways we know we have troubles. None of that changes the fact that it is our goal.

You may ask, "Shouldn't the family tend to that?" In general, yes, it is the family's function to raise their children. Unfortunately, a full education requires special skills that most parents don't have. What's more, other needed resources, such as books, scientific materials, and time are also difficult for families to get. For that purpose, we hire an outside service to tend to our children. This service, theoretically, has all the resources needed to provide the education.

Why can that be? Simple, it is like anything else in that it has an economy of scale. An economy of scale is where the more of a product or service you provide, the less it costs you to do so. For example, if you buy a mower to mow lawns as a service, it costs you a specific amount of money. If you only mow one lawn then you have to subtract the cost of the mower from the money you received for mowing. That's not too profitable. However, if you mow forty lawns each week for twenty-six weeks, then subtract the cost of the one mower you will have made a profit. The cost of the mower per instance of mowing will be less.

The same holds true for formal education. If a parent has to learn to be a teacher and then provide all the needed materials to teach one child, the cost of teaching that one child is very high. If a school can buy the materials and teach many students, they can do so at a lower cost per student.

To really illustrate this point, look at the skills of the teachers. If you, as a parent, need to teach your child, you will need the skills of the teachers from the school. You will need a degree in early child education. That'll cost you about forty thousand dollars. Then you will need to teach your child math, science, English, and history. Each of those additional degrees will run you another thirty thousand. You now need one hundred and sixty thousand dollars in education to get your child through elementary school. Sure, if you have four kids to teach it'll only run you about forty thousand per child, but do you really have that much?

The expense of the needed education is just the tip of the iceberg. If you were to spend eight hours a day teaching, that's eight hours you aren't working. You are losing out on whatever wages you could have been earning. You already sunk over a hundred thousand dollars and now you aren't making any money either.

As you can see, a school is a good thing.


Some will ask, "But why should the state pay for schools? Some of us taxpayers don't even have kids."

That's a good question, and there is a good answer. First of all, let's look at what the state is. When people get together in any large number, they need to organize in order to get things done. Humans have a long history of such organizations. Whether as tribes, kingdoms, or any other organization, humans always form states.

Part of any state is a government. The government's function is to help organize what goes on within the state. In our government, we elect representatives. That means that we hire people to make decisions for us. Why would we do such a thing? Well, few of us have the time or other resources to analyze the complex world and make decisions about the state as a whole. We hire these experts to do that analyzing for us.

Historically, there have been other forms of government, and we would consider most of them to be bad. The problem comes when the government decides that it is separate from the rest of the state and then abuses the state. We try to avoid that. Another problem comes when people decide that the government is separate because then they won't participate properly.

In any event, we have a government that is intended to analyze things and make decisions about things the state does. We pool our moneys and these hired people try to use it for the benefit of the state and its people as best they can. One of the things they use it on is public schools.

The state has an interest in public education because it benefits the state. Since we hired the government to do things that benefit the state, they run public education. An educated populace is productive and creates fewer problems for itself. That's why the state has an interest in public education.

Even if you don't have children of your own to be educated, you benefit from being in a better-educated society. The things you purchase are less costly to you because an educated people make things more efficiently. The kid at the gas station is less annoying if he can figure out your change. There are more doctors and engineers and fewer violent criminals among the educated. (I am quite aware that there are counter-examples of these things. My argument is in the general situation and the few out-lying examples don't affect the main concept.) The little bit of your tax money that goes to schools has a remarkable return in benefits.


Some of you may ask, "Why not let private schools handle this?"

Again, that's a good question and I have another answer for you. When the state runs the schools, the profit shows up in a more productive populace. If a private school runs things, they want their profit up front. That makes the initial outlay of resources higher. Those are resources that could be spent elsewhere.

You might complain that if there are problems at public schools, private schools could fix them. I would bet that if we scrapped public schools altogether, the private schools would have the same problems shifted to them. It's easy to show a specific private school that is doing well. The same school may not do so well when burdened with the full weight of our nation's children.

Some would like to see an intermediary step in the form of school vouchers. They believe if a specific public school is having trouble the children should be able to go to a private school and take the amount of money that would have gone to the education of that child. Again, we have the issue of cost and profit. The private school will want its profit up front. More importantly, we get back to the economy of scale.

Remember above I mentioned that the cost of teaching children goes down as you get more children in the system. If you reduce the number of children and remove the money used to teach them, it suddenly becomes more costly to teach the remaining students. That means it is harder to fix the problems. So, not only are the profit seeking schools more expensive, so are the public schools. Unless you hate children and America, you can't possibly want to do this.


I've used the idea of an economy of scale in several of my arguments. It's a good tool for understanding many social and political issues. There is, however, the other side. It is called the diseconomy of scale. In the economy of scale, things got less expensive as you produced more. There comes a point where you just can't do that anymore.

Here's an example. Imagine that you rent out one cubic foot boxes in your home for storage. The more you rent out, the more it reduces your mortgage burden. The income pays for more of your cost. Now imagine that you have rented out all the space in your home. You can no longer live there. The box rent may be cutting down your mortgage cost, but it doesn't cut down so much on the apartment rent from where you now have to live. Your enterprise has gone too far.

Sure, that's a silly example, but it illustrates the concept. There is a point when things have grown too big and it is no longer profitable. How does this apply to schools? Well, it goes a long way toward describing one of the problems. As a nation, our population is big and is getting bigger. That means lots of children in the school. Changes to our school systems often take years to implement. By the time we have adjusted to something, the world has adjusted even further. That means that many of our schools are constantly trying to play catch up. That cost resources. The classrooms are over crowded. There aren't enough teachers. The cost of becoming a teacher grows faster than the pay for being a teacher. These are all symptoms of a diseconomy of scale.


There are more problems, of course. The second main problem would be a general lack seriousness with which the average citizen views education. Since most people didn't like school when they were there, they don't really like it now. They see it as a necessary evil, not as a really good thing.

The result of this is that people don't want to hear about more money going to schools. They don't want to pay teachers and administrators. They don't realize the expense of the Masters degree required to teach. They don't want to maintain the buildings. They don't realize just how important schools are.

Without constant pressure for improvement, along with the funding to support the changes, there will not be progress. Write your government people, like a good citizen, and tell them to take an active role in improving the schools. Then call your local school, even if you don't have kids there, and ask what you can do to help. If there's no time for you to volunteer there, send them a couple of bucks as a donation.

Remember, the education of the children of the nation is in your own best interest.


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