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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
The state's minimum role in education
Peter C. Hansen  (June 6, 2009, 1:00 am)

Murray, I can't say that I see a boundary on the NJ courts' authority being necessarily established by Article VIII(I)(7) of the NJ Constitution, which you quote. If the court were to determine that a "thorough and efficient system of free public school" is best represented by the most expensive one in the state (per Art. VIII(IV)(1)), it would presumably take little legal technique to find that the NJ Legislature must "reduce" or "offset" the property taxes that would have been paid by poorer school districts to create the same system. Since the NJ Constitution does not require the Legislature specifically to refund paid income tax, the "reduce" or "offset" language could likely be ignored in every practical sense since anything could theoretically be paid (and "offset") from a property tax. (I say all this informally, by the way, as I am not licensed in NJ as a lawyer.)

I would also like to engage a bit with your interesting points on school funding. You seem to be arguing that the costs of education should be borne by the parents as much as possible, except perhaps for a minimum per-pupil payment to parents from the state income tax. I agree in part and disagree in part. I find the per-pupil grant to the parents highly attractive, as it provides financial means to be educated but does not dictate where it must be spent. This allows for free competition among providers, and does not necessarily harm traditional public schools if they can provide services at a reasonable cost. (Indeed, I suspect as a practical matter that the state minimum fee would be carefully attuned to public school costs.)

At the same time, I don't agree that parents alone should primarily bear the cost of their children's education. (Since you allow for some public subsidy via the income tax, it would appear that our difference here is one of degree.) Few people can be confident over the whole course of eighteen years that they will have sufficient funds for education, let alone before the child is born and one is (usually) rather young and of uncertain prospects. The only rational decision in such circumstances is not to have children, and thus avoid the risk of lacking funds. Less drastically, the choice would be to have only one child, or be prepared (as in the developing world) to choose which child is educated, and to accept that if one loses a job, one's child may have to leave school. The social outcomes of such a situation would almost certainly be worse than one (like the present) where K-12 education is (at least legally) assured.

I also do not believe that the "pure" conservative position must see a guarantee of educational opportunities as co-equal with support for "socialized" education, or that a pro-guarantee position is inherently leftist. A (limited) paternalistic approach by the state is needed here to ensure the welfare of dependent children who cannot decide their own fate. The direct grant payment you propose is appropriate to a rational-actor situation where the beneficiary can personally decide how to use the funds. A child (particularly a very young one) has no such capacity, and parents cannot always be relied upon to make reasonable decisions for their child. The child is essentially at the mercy of its parents.

In this instance, I believe that the state legitimately has the right in loco parentis to ensure a minimum opportunity for the child to achieve a properly educated, rational capacity of its own (and thereby fulfill the libertarian ideal). Doing so by providing sufficient funds, and by ensuring that every child can go to some appropriately serious local school, allows maximum freedom while establishing a "floor" of opportunity to which everyone is entitled. If that "floor" did not exist, society would accept that someone could grow up in the basest degradation and ignorance, without any opportunities whatsoever, and nothing at all need be done about it. That is a recipe for creating a South American-style caste structure (where charity has barely ameliorated the inequalities, poverty and violence).

Now, as to the content of the educational opportunity to be provided, this is a wide field for debate. As I said above, this matter is more properly left to the parents, although I don't see a reason why the state couldn't require some basic competencies such as age-appropriate reading and arithmetic abilities. I think a discussion as to content would be disturbing, however, if it were allowed that some children could take no part whatsoever in any of the studies under discussion.

I would of course welcome your thoughts on this, and I will also try to read the Abbott decision to respond better to Chris's latest (and very useful) post.