Last week I attended a board meeting for a proposed public charter school in my neighborhood. It was quite an education, as was the chatter on the mailing list in the days that followed. The discussions had me thinking about the purpose of public education, and the importance of adding a good school to the system, even if the neighborhood school is already good. I have a lot to say on the subject, but I don't have my thoughts on schools in particular all sorted out. So here's a piece from my personal archives (an old blog now locked away) that touches on many of the same issues.
originally published 14 September 2006
Last Friday, All Things Considered offered up this commentary by Bill Harley on the budget of his small town, and how voters choose to spend their money. He focuses on the library. His thesis is that if libraries didn't already exist, we wouldn't be able to get them started now. No one would agree to pay more taxes so they could share books. Book publishers and music execs would lose their minds about copyright issues.
The next day, when C. came to visit, we walked a couple of blocks from my house to the local park, which has a very nice little playground. C. mentioned that she wished she could have a swing set in her backyard, but it's just too small. I muttered something noncommittal and we moved on to other topics.
Inspired by Harley's commentary, I realized that I didn't agree with her at all. My own yard is not too small. For $1,600 I could make good use of my Costco membership, and get a play set that mimics the one at the park. My child(ren) could use it any time. I'd never have to worry about walking "all the way" to the park. I'd never have to worry about waiting in line for the swing. My backyard, at least for a little while, would be the cool backyard, where other kids wanted to be.
Assuming I could make the trade, cut $1,600 off my property taxes and never use the park. (I could even divy it up, assume that the playground would be useful to my kids for 8 years, and cut $200 a year off my taxes.) Would that be a good trade for me? I'd have to maintain my own equipment. I'd have to provide extra kids so that my kid could learn about sharing and waiting his turn.
And the city would lose out, too. Even if I didn't care if the other kids got to swing on a swing. A public playground requires a public employee to maintain the equipment. So if all my neighbors opted out of the public playground, that would put one person, possibly several people out of work. That's one more person who needs food stamps. It's also one more person who doesn't have health insurance, which means one more person in the emergency room, clogging up the system with a non-emergency, while my cat-bitten hand swells up like a catcher's glove.
I do care if other kids get to swing on swings. Never mind the touchy-feeley "happy childhood" business. A kid who has regular access to safe outdoor play is going to be leaner and healthier than a kid who has to stay inside because there is no place to play. A leaner, healthier kid will be less of a drain on resources now and later. And that's important, since that kid could easily be the child of the public employee that got laid off because my neighborhood opted out of the public playground in the first place. So then there's a fat, sickly kid with an unemployed dad and no health insurance clogging up the emergency room.
I do care about the touchy-feeley "happy childhood" business. It is important for kids to have access to safe places to play outdoors. It is important for kids to play with other kids and laugh. And even if I never have a child of my own, it is important to me that other kids be happy. Because it's the right thing to do. My little city has very good public services, from the playground to the dog catcher. And it could all come crashing down if I whine and complain and vote to lower my (very high) property taxes, thus lowering the money available for those services. Sure, sometimes it would be nice to skip the walk and just let the kid out back to play. But it wouldn't really be better.