Fund my future?

The Capital-Journal has a photo from today’s rally (more taxes for schools) of a young girl named Savannah who holds  a sign that reads “Fund my future.”

A lot of economists would agree that it is a legitimate and desirable public function to fund education. That is, there’s a public interest in seeing to it that the girl, and other children, have the opportunity to learn, and in fact to get a public subsidy to do so.

But how should taxpayers’ dollars be used to fund Savannah’s education? Too often, what people are interested in is funding things besides education. You see it in the debate over district consolidation: Don’t consolidate these schools, because “towns will die.” In that case, money meant for education is spent on a particular set of schools that, according to this argument, provide not education as much as they do a community identity. Yet communities get their identities from for-profit (think of Hershey, Penn., or Wichita’s identity as a center of aviation) and non-profit, non-governmental organizations  (think of small towns that host private colleges) all the time, quite apart from a specific set of government-owned schools.

But back to Savannah. We want to make sure that she has the opportunity to learn. She might learn in a variety of settings: a traditional school in a school district, a magnet school within a district, a charter school, a private school, and a home-schooled setting.

The budget crunch requires us to think of the distinction between education and public schooling. The two often go hand-in-hand, but not always: Plenty of students drop out of public schools, or graduate with weak skills, while students outside public schools learn.

Kansans can still fund education without raising taxes. They should look for ways to economize on public schools: Consolidation may have some benefits, as might consolidating administrative services, putting more money into the classroom and less elsewhere, giving families grants to attend private schools (thereby reducing demand on public schools), and so forth.

The article, by the way, says that funding for public schools has been “slashed” by $287 million. To you and me, that’s a lot of money. But according to one report from KSDE, school districts in the state spent $5.6 billion in the 2008-09 school year. In comparison, $287 million is … 5 percent. Certainly not a pleasant sum to absorb if you’re an administrator, but “slash,” well, it seems to me that the word requires a greater amount than that.

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