Thursday, May 5, 2016

Water, Charters, and Obama

This is what President Obama said in Flint, Michigan.

It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how responsible you are, how you raise your kids. You can’t set up a whole water system for a city. That’s not something you do by yourself. You do it with other people. You can’t hire your own fire department or your own police force, or your own army. They’re things we have to do together. Basic things that we all benefit from.

It's a really good thought, a clear and direct statement about the value of community goods, the things that we create and maintain in the common space.

And yet somehow the administration does not see how this same reasoning applies to schools.

Of course you can't set up a whole water system for a city-- but, if you are rich enough and powerful enough, you can set up a system for yourself and let everyone else in the city go pound sand. Any public good can be purchased with private money, if your pile of money is large enough.

You can't set up a school system for a whole city any more than you can hire your own police and fire fighters. Which is to say, you can do it if you have the money. But it won't be for everyone-- just for the chosen few.

So apparently the President opposes the notion of a charter water system, a charter fire department, or a charter police force as a way to serve a whole city. He did not stand in Flint and declare that when the water system was a mess, the solution would be to let a bunch of entrepreneurs set up various competing small scale water systems as laboratories of innovation. He did not suggest that the right visionary entrepreneur really could create a great water system for the whole city.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that a conglomeration of competing water companies, fire departments, or police stations-- all financed with the same total funding used to run just one of each-- would be a solution.

The President clearly accepted that it's clearly ridiculous to suggest that a messy mass of individually launched public services could ever properly protect and maintain the public good. He clearly understands that letting money-motivated individuals mess with a public good leads to disasters like a poisoned water supply. So the mystery remains-- why does he not see that it is patently ridiculous to let such cash-chasing individuals loose in the public good that is education? Is one of these things really not like the others?


  1. The thing is that the reasoning does not apply to schools.

    If it did, there would not be a private Montessori school in my town, a private Waldorf school in my town, a private Catholic school in my town, a private progressive school in my town, a private episcopal school in my town, and of course, 20 public school buildings in my town.

    If there were 25 different water systems in the town, that would be crazy. The 25 different schools, with 6 different administrations, not crazy at all. It is, in fact, very normal.

    1. I question the term "normal". It is accepted here. Private schools are not allowed in Finland and their results speak for themselves. Unfortunately the purpose of many/most private schools in the US is to segregate their children from others.

    2. Jim,

      I was using normal in the sense of normal for the United States.

      The importance of private schools does vary across countries. In the US about 9% of students go to privately managed schools, but in Belgium it is 69% and in the Russian Federation it is 0%. (from figure 1.1 in this publication:

      I am a bit puzzled about Finland though, as figure 1.1 states that 4% of Finnish students attend privately managed schools.

    3. Sir, you have missed the point. A wealthy person may dig their own well or construct their own personal pipeline from the nearest river or lake as they desire. But for the public at large, a public good like water or education requires a public investment and the best use of money is one system that is controlled democratically by the people who use it.

    4. Gregory,

      For that matter a wealthy person may also create a school, but that is not really relevant to the issue at hand.

      Education is pretty much a constant returns to scale enterprise once you get above a relatively small number of students. Municipal water is an increasing returns to scale enterprise. Delivery of natural gas is an increasing returns to scale enterprise. Delivery of electricity is an increasing returns to scale enterprise (though technology changes with solar power may make electricity generation a constant returns to scale enterprise).

      From an economists point of view, neither water nor education is a public good. If I do not pay, I do not get water at my home, if I do not live in the catchment area, I do not get to attend a school. Both water and education are excludable, and that disqualifies them from the economist's definition of a public good.

      I would be interested in how you define what is, and is not, a public good.

  2. Do any of those private schools in your town serve any and every kid in the town? Or only the chosen few?

    Thanks for proving Peter's point.

    1. No school in my town serves every kid in the town. Each school in the public system has its own catchment area, each private school has its own admission criteria. I know several families that moved in order to change catchment areas.

      Peter's point is that there are serious economies to scale in education like there are with piped water systems. That is simply not true.

    2. If there were rich people in Flint, I can see them having their own private water system.

      My city's public school system serves all the students in the city, unless they choose to go to a private, parochial, or charter school, or home school. And if those options didn't exist or no one chose them, the public schools would serve them too. And the public schools serve any and all ELL students and special ed students, and offer vocational or college prep, including calculus, to every student that wants it. The catchment area doesn't matter as far as that goes; the schools in each catchment area serve all the students in that area, and the district serves all students in the district. And if you want a program that isn't offered in your catchment area, you can go to the school that has it even if you don't live there.