education philosopher

Should We Have Mandatory Tax-Funded Media?: An argument by analogy

Posted in Politics of Education by KevinCK on October 19, 2009

Recently, I have been engaged in discussion with some folks over whether tax-funded public schools with mandatory attendance laws are justifiable. While I can see some arguments in favor of public schooling, I think public schooling also has much to be said against it (for reasons beside the fact that it seems not to be educating very well.) Most importantly, there is a moral argument against public schooling that I think can best be seen by analogizing the public school climate in the US with a theoretical case of public media and compulsory viewischoolng laws.

Imagine the situation:

In 2050, the United States, in an effort to ensure that everyone has access to quality news and information, mandates that a certain percentage of all local taxes will be spent on a tax-supported, governmentally run, media. Because it is in the interest of all to be informed by good information, the government has decided that it will (a) make media listening mandatory for at least one hour a day by all citizens under penalty of arrest; (b) ensure that, while private media are allowed to run, they will be required to be approved/accredited by the Department of Media (c) allow citizens to either listen to the “free” government-run media outlet or pay separately for private media (meaning that they have to pay for the government media they have opted out of and the private media they’ve opted into). If they opt out of the government media, they can only do so by filling out paperwork with their local Department of Media to ensure that they are in compliance with the mandatory listening law by getting their media through a government-accredited alternate media source.

It is easy to spot the problems with this above scenario. First, there is a very justifiable fear that such a system would give government a virtual monopoly over the dissemination of information through the populace. Of course, it can be argued that citizens are still allowed to listen to media sources outside of the tax-supported one, but in order to do so, they must fill out paperwork with the government and can only listen to “governmentally-accredited” media sources. Further, citizens must pay for access to private media sources above and beyond paying taxes that support the governmentally-run media. Thus, citizens are “free to choose” between getting info from a media they MUST support via taxes (that the government calls “free”) and paying even more for the ability to listen to non-government media.

All of this seems to set up a situation where listening to the governmentally-run media is strongly encouraged by the government and listening to any other media requires extraordinary effort.

The above scenario also brings up a crucial question: why is the government in the media business, anyhow? The government might answer that it simply wants to ensure that everyone has access to good media, but the question still lingers: is the best source for media really the government? Isn’t the government only going to tell you what it wants you to hear? And isn’t it a bit of a conflict of interest for the government to set up a situation where the majority of citizens MUST listen to governmentally-funded-and-controlled media?

This situation, as far as I can see, is DIRECTLY analogous to the current US climate regarding public schools. Parents are told that they must send their children to school for a set amount of time per day, and that their choices are to send them to the “free” public school or pay extra money (in addition to taxes already supporting the public school) to a private school that is “governmentally accredited.” Contra protestations to the contrary, this sets up a system that strongly encourages parents to send their children to a governmentally run school and discourages them from opting out.

And the question is directly analogous also: is it best that the government is the one who decides what kids should learn and how to teach it? Should it really be the government who has final say over what kids should learn and how they should learn it? (If you think there is no possible conflict of interest here, look at the public school systems in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Saddam’s Iraq. Not saying that US is in such a grave situation, but simply noting that governments CAN have a vested interest in creating, rather than teaching, subjects. It has happened.)

We rightly recognize the dangers of having a governmentally-controlled media where the firm incentives are not to opt for private alternatives. We recognize that this means that most people will get their media directly from the government (who often choose spin over truth). We recognize that the public interest is simply better served when people are free to choose a wide variety of media sources rather than being all-but-locked-in to only one. We recognize that it freedom of the press does not mean a thing unless Americans are in possession of a basic right to choose what media to listen to and which to support. (Imagine if we all had to support Foxnews via a law mandating that tax dollars support it!)

Now, once again, apply all of these criticisms to public education. They can all be applied very well! Mandating that everyone support their local public schools with tax dollars is essentially freeing the public schools from incentive to earn out support. (They, like the theoretical Foxnews above) get our support whether we agree or disagree with what they do. We are also setting up a future generation the vast majority of which has gotten an education from the government, who has decided what they are to learn and how they are to learn it. One may opt out of government education, but only at a hefty expense of money (and a request of approval from the government showing that while you are opting out, you will substitute with a “governmentally accredited” private school.)

And lastly, we should all recognize that like the media example, our interests are actually best served by having the freedom to have our children educated not by one, but by a plurality, of schools. That way, various schools could exist that serve the needs of various student bodies with different abilities, proclivities, interests, etc. If one school decides to teach one way (a way that turns out to be less than stellar), parents can move their children to a school that teaches another way. To use an evolutionary analogy, strong schools will survive and replicate where weak schools will languish. (Compare this with public ed, where weak schools stay in business no matter what.) This is not to mention the societal interest of having a pluralistic citizenry, rather than a monolithic one – one educated in a variety of ways rather than in one “governmentally accredited” way.

By thinking about the analogy of a governmentally-funded media with mandatory listening laws, I think it is easier to see some of the problems with the predicaments raised by public schooling.

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