Inheritance and education: the real injustice

The one inequality I think is really unjust is inheritance. Or rather: the inequality between a child born to rich parents and an equivalent child born to parents who are poor.

In this respect, our laws and mentality seem feudal. Isn't a person, any person, who is born into this world, a human being? Doesn't each person deserve the opportunity to learn, to prove herself, to try and be successful? (I ask this here rhetorically because I think most would agree. However, there may be a future article in store in which I'll challenge this premise.)

How come, then, that we tolerate such inequality when it comes to education? In the USA as well as in Slovenia - two countries I'm reasonably acquainted with - the only schools that give you a valuable education are private. Poor parents cannot afford private schools, even if their children are smart. (Universities in Slovenia are free but produce people who are unemployable. For most careers, the way to get a decent education is to attend a foreign university and pay for it, which the majority cannot afford - or even know of; requires rare traits such as openness to foreign culture and working knowledge of a foreign language.)

Stipends can help here. However, any reasonable stipend can only ever be given to those who show top promise. How about those low-income children who aren't in the top few percent? Yes, they require more investment; and yes, their expected lifetime output is low. But is it fair to be cutting off their chances from the very beginning?

It is true for most countries that they need to invest more and better in children's education. But there's more to maximizing a child's potential than just school. In material terms, there's medicine; if the child needs it and her parents cannot afford it, the child isn't going to do well, however good the school. There are books, which many parents cannot afford; there's tutoring - even more expensive; there's whether or not the child even has the space and quiet needed to study and do homework. It takes more than a stipend to address all that; and currently, the poor just don't. Only a kid with more than average talent can break out of that. The rest are in bad shape.

What happens to these kids who aren't given sufficient opportunity and a good enough learning environment? Many of them become a burden to everyone else. They often have no choice but take up dead-end, low-paying jobs, from which point many eventually end up relying on social security and Medicaid. Or, in a vain hope of "succeeding", they seek out "careers" in crimes like burglary, swindling, car theft or trafficking.

In 2001, the average American elementary or secondary school spent some $10,000 in today's dollars per enrolled child per year. This is not enough. Suppose that, in order to get a decent quality education, at minimum some $15,000 per child must be spent on tuition. Let's suppose also that the child needs at least an extra $15,000 annually for other material needs that are most necessary for the child to do well in education.

What I propose is this. On the day a child is born, the government would put into a dedicated child's account an amount large enough to finance 12 years of education. Let's say this would be some $350,000. This money could be drawn on by the parents, but could be used only for expenses that are genuine investments in the child, such as school tuition; the child's medical expenses; books and equipment required for education; clothing. All expenses would be monitored and abuses sanctioned heavily, because abuse would essentially be robbing the child's future.

Parents would be free to invest the money in the child's education as they wish. The number of private schools would increase and the quality of tuition would improve because of the additional resources available. Everybody would attend a private school of their desired type; public schools would not be necessary. Private schools could afford better facilities and teachers because more funds would be available.

But obviously, this would cost a lot. In the USA alone, some 4 million children are born every year. Giving each of them $350,000 would cost some $1.4 trillion. So where would the money come from?

Easy - if you dare. $1.5 trillion is about the amount that the American federal government nowadays spends on social security ($520m), income security ($350m), health ($260m), Medicare ($300m) and education ($100m).

It is my opinion that the government has no business managing these things. The per-child endowment I suggest would replace all these in one neat package, and dispose of a lot of rules, complexity, distortions, expenses and red tape.

Introducing a per-child endowment to replace all the other ways the government tries to help would fundamentally change everyone's motivational landscape. On the one hand, it would remove the abuse incentive provided by all safety nets. A safety net is something an individual should maintain on their own. Even if there is an external safety net, an individual should not be aware that there is one, and certainly should not rely on its existence, because it changes his or her economic decisions for the worse. It makes it more likely that you'll try to coast through life than run a marathon to achieve something. (Imbued with socialist mentalities, I think that many if not most Slovenians underrealize their potential this way.)

On the other hand, knowing that you have a big endowment, but that it will eventually run out, gives you a motivation to do with it the most you can. Since the endowment has to be spent on education, people would invest in education more and would try harder to make the best of it. This, in turn, would make them more competent, more employable, less likely to resort to crime and less likely to require a safety net in the first place.


Anonymous said…
... the only schools that give you a valuable education are private.


How many privat school in Slovenia there are at all? And what's wrong with public schools like (for example) Bezigrad or II. gimnazija Maribor??

denis bider said…
Indeed, there aren't a whole lot of private schools in Slovenia, which may be why it's so difficult to get a decent education there.

The quality of education at Slovenian free, public universities varies from faculty to faculty. Some departments offer a decent education, but many really decidedly suck.

Among high schools, the two that you mentioned, and perhaps another one or two that you didn't, are probably the only ones that can measure up - in quality of education, not other things - to private high schools such as the Diocesan Classical Grammar School in Ljubljana (Skofijska Klasicna Gimnazija), mostly run by the Catholic Church. I know people who could tell you a lot about their experiences at other Slovenian public schools.

Coming from SKG, I am often surprised to learn how little people learn at other high schools, and how impossibly disorganized the environments are.

Slovenian primary schools in general fail to motivate bright students and tend to encourage rote learning, with capable teachers who can actually TEACH students to grow educationally and persons being few and far between.

Graduates of FF, FE, FRI, FDV and probably other faculties are useless when they graduate and have to learn everything they'll actually need to know in their job from their employer.

Generally speaking, Slovenian public schooling is a waste of valuable time and effort that people could otherwise spend on something that actually made sense, and the school system leaves you with hardly any skills that you need to make an actual contribution in today's global world.

That's not to say that private schools also don't tend to suck. However, the schools that give you the best education are private.

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