Pricing public education

Protestors on UC campuses in California are focusing attention on the rising cost of higher education
in the state’s public university system, which has seen cuts in state
support of over a billion dollars. A Berkeley administrator sums up the

“The rapidly rising fees give us all heartburn,” said
Gibor Basri, the vice chancellor for equity and inclusion at Berkeley,
who has met with the protesters several times. “We don’t believe that
higher education is a private right but a public good.”

The funding challenge in higher ed has implications for K-12 spending
as well. Society has a responsibility to fund education — both to
provide equality of opportunity for all children and to develop human
capital for the improvement of civic life and our economy. But what to
do when taxpayers have already provided massive increases in funding
after inflation over a sustained period, as they have for K-12 over the
past several decades?

We can’t afford to focus only on the revenue side of the equation
anymore if our goal is to ensure that quality education remains a public
good. Just as taxpayers have their responsibility for this good, so,
too, do service providers entrusted with public dollars: teachers,
administrators, and school boards. When these folks avoid having tough
conversations about efficiency, they weaken society’s promise of a free,
top-notch education for all.

Reformers who are focused on “doing more with less” in the nation’s
schools should reclaim the high ground on school finance. We all agree
that education is a public good — but after huge increases in funding
for K-12, the burden must shift to spending those dollars wisely and
with the best possible results for kids.