Should locals resent it when kids graduate and leave?
Graduation season is surfacing a certain traditionalist viewpoint that seems to resent the idea of paying to educate children who will depart for greener pastures. Besides the peculiar supposition that there's a viable alternative (should people be tied to their family land forever?), the very idea that taxpayers should resent the cost of educating the community's children is itself contrary to the long tradition of expecting to see one's offspring live healthier and wealthier than their predecessors.
■ John Stuart Mill wrote that "[T]o bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society", and he was right. Having children may obviously be a response to our basic instincts as animals -- but it is also a deeply moral act.
■ Socially, we've chosen (wisely) to make the education of children compulsory. A child is born into a family, but that child is also part of a community -- one that has a duty to preserve good things for the future. Part of cleaning up after ourselves (one of the basic duties of American citizenship) is to prepare the best possible intellectual foundation for our successors, whether they're from our own blood or not. That means paying for things like schools.
■ It also means expecting those schools to perform well. We shouldn't mistake "public funding" for a good or service with the insistence that it also means "government delivery". We should have very high expectations of schools, and we shouldn't be afraid of either reform or competition, where appropriately regulated. But we should have those high expectations in the sole interest of the children, not of the local economy.
■ Who knows whether a graduate will stay behind, move away, or perhaps both (in either order)? The community doesn't pay for compulsory education for its own benefit; it pays for the benefit of the children. Enlightened local leadership often figures out that good schools can substantially enhance the community's economic standing -- either as a magnet for parents seeking good places to live, or as an endogenous driver of growth.
■ But basic primary and secondary education isn't first and foremost about the benefit of the present and near-future community. It's about the well-being of the children themselves. We clean up pollution not because we're going to breathe the polluted air or drink the contaminated water (at least not generally), but because we have a moral duty not to send those contaminants downwind and downstream to our neighbors.
■ Similarly, we don't educate children because we expect it to boost the local economy over the coming decade, but because having brought children into the world, we have a duty to "clean up after ourselves" by ensuring that those children become adults who can support themselves, experience the joys and mysteries of life, and behave like thoughtful citizens and voters, wherever they choose to reside. Like air and water, our offspring may end up in lots of places far from where we deposited them.
■ Americans move measurably less than we used to, but we still move around a lot -- to the tune of about 10% of us a year. We are intermixed quite a lot, and on that count alone we owe it to our fellow Americans not to "pollute" the population with mis-, mal-, or under-educated offspring. But even more than that, we have the duty to send people out into the world who are prepared to live full and meaningful lives -- even if they should move abroad. The appropriate financial return on investment for a community to expect from educating its children is zero. Paradoxically, though, the community that educates them well should not be surprised if that success itself pays off in accounting terms down the road. It just shouldn't be the basis for the investment.