Do you see yourself as a CONSUMER, or a CITIZEN? That makes all the difference

Back on a previous post, we got off on a tangent about vouchers (and, by implication, tax credits and other devices for draining funding from public education). Bud said,

I’ve always thought it ironic that opponents of public education complain of “throwing money” at a problem, then turn around and advocate sending the money to private entities that will be completely unaccountable for it. Now THAT’s “throwing money” — up into the air, at random.

I’m generally in support of Brad on this issue and usually don’t write about education issues. But this statement is pretty easy to refute. The accountability aspect of the vouchers is left to the parents who will pull their kids out if the schools don’t perform…

This prompted me to say, rather vehemently,

No, no, NO! Public education is not a consumer transaction between individual parents and the schools. Public education exists for the WHOLE community, and must be accountable to it. And that includes any money that is pulled out of the system and spent on something else.

I need to dig around and see if I can find the column I did several years ago explaining the difference between approaching public affairs as a consumer, and approaching the same from the perspective of a citizen…

Well, I’ve now laid hands on that column (which originally ran on Friday, March 4, 2005), and here’s the relevant part of it. Enjoy:

But the main way in which a tuition tax credit is worse than a voucher is that it promotes the insidiously false notion that taxes paid for public schools are some sort of user fee.

Whether you agree with me here depends upon your concept of your place in society: Do you see yourself as a consumer, or as a citizen?

If you look upon public schools narrowly as a consumer, and you send your kids to private schools or home-school them, then you might think, “Hey, why should I be paying money to this provider, when I’m buying the service from someone else?” If that’s your view, a tuition tax credit makes perfect sense to you. Why shouldn’t you get a refund?

But if you look at it as a citizen, it makes no sense at all. Public schools have never been about selling a commodity; they have always been about the greatest benefits and highest demands of citizenship.

A citizen understands that parents and their children are not the only “consumers” of public school services — not by a long shot. That individual children and families benefit from education is only one important part of the whole picture of what public schools do for society. The rest of us voters and taxpayers have a huge stake, too.

Public schools exist for the entire community — for people with kids in public schools and private schools, people whose kids are grown, people who’ve never had kids and those who never will. (Note that, by the logic of the tax credit advocates, those last three groups should get tax breaks, too. In fact, if only the one-third or so of households who have children in public schools at a given time paid taxes to support them, we wouldn’t be able to keep the schools open.)

Public schools exist to provide businesses with trained workers, and to attract industries that just won’t locate in a place without good public schools. They exist to give our property value. If you doubt the correlation between good public schools and property values, just ask a Realtor.

They exist to create an informed electorate — a critical ingredient to a successful representative democracy. (In fact, if I were inclined to argue that public schools have failed, I would point out just how many people we have walking around without a clear understanding of their responsibilities as citizens. But I don’t expect public education critics to use that one.)

Public schools exist to make sure we live in a decent society full of people able to live productive lives, instead of roaming the streets with no legitimate means of support. In terms of cost-effectiveness on this score, spending roughly $4,400 per pupil for public schools (the state’s actual share, not the inflated figure the bill’s advocates use, which includes local and federal funds) is quite a bargain set against the $13,000 it costs to keep one young person in prison. And South Carolina has the cheapest prisons in the nation.

Consider the taxes we pay to provide fire protection. It doesn’t matter if we never call the fire department personally. We still benefit (say, by having lower insurance rates) because the fire department exists. More importantly, our neighbors who do have an immediate need for the fire department — as many do each day — depend upon its being there, and being fully funded.

All of us have the obligation to pay the taxes that support public schools, just as we do for roads and law enforcement and the other more essential services that government provides. And remember, those of you who think of “government” as some wicked entity that has nothing to do with you: Government provides only those things that we, acting through our elected representatives, decide it should provide. You might disagree with some of those decisions, but you know, you’re not always going to be in the majority in a democracy.

If, as a consumer, you wish to pay for an alternative form of education for your child, you are free to do that. But that decision does not relieve you of the responsibility as a citizen to support the basic infrastructure of the society in which you live.

Radical libertarians — people who see themselves primarily as consumers, who want to know exactly what they are personally, directly receiving for each dollar that leaves their hands — don’t understand the role of government in society because they simply don’t understand how human beings are interconnected. I’m not just saying that we should be interconnected; I’m saying that we are, whether we like it or not. And if we want society to work so that we have a decent place in which to dwell, we have to adopt policies that recognize that stark fact.

That’s why we have public schools. And that’s why we all are obliged to support them.

30 thoughts on “Do you see yourself as a CONSUMER, or a CITIZEN? That makes all the difference

  1. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Those who think government “ought to be run like a business” are likely to see themselves as consumers.

    Count me as a citizen.

  2. Doug Ross

    Your viewpoint falls apart on two fronts:

    1) Consumers are not normally asked to purchase items for other people nor are they expected to pay more for the same thing. I pay more for the same public education than the people living in the neighborhood 1/4 mile away from me. If we are all equal citizens with equal responsibilities and equal benefit, we all should be paying the same amount. This is why I believe property taxes should be replaced with a per home fee.

    2) The reality is that the vast majority of taxpayers who don’t have kids in public school do not take any ownership regarding the quality of the education. You may wish it were so but it is not. And it goes back to the question I asked on the other note – if you care so much about the public education in your community, what are you doing besides calling for higher taxes to be paid for everyone?

    You were in a position for many years where you could have focused on schools getting rid of teachers. You had a newspaper with 100,000 readers at one time at your disposal. How many bad teachers did you get out of the schools?

    How about just as a parent? When your kids were in public school, how many times did you meet with the principal to express your ideas on how to improve the school? I was a PTO President in the past for two years. I saw how it works up close.

  3. Brad

    Um… Doug… I don’t see how my thesis breaks down at ALL. In your item 1), you state rather eloquently why the “consumer” paradigm does not apply to the sphere of government.

    And your item 2) states an irrelevant point. It would be good if all citizens understood the relationship between themselves and our critical institutions, but whether they do or not is irrelevant to the EXISTENCE of that relationship. The public schools (and not just the one down the street, but the entire system, including those troubled schools in the poor rural areas) is of critical importance to every citizen, whether that citizen fully understands the relationship or not.

    I labor hard to point out the existence of said relationship, but as you point out, I am not omnipotent. Somehow, inexplicably, neither the Legislature, nor SC as a whole, always snaps to and does what I exhort them to do. Alas.

    And I work against a considerable tide. The problem is that so much of what people receive through mass media and in everyday conversations reinforces this false “consumer” paradigm. As I’ve lamented with regard to rising above the pettier forms of partisanship, we lack the common vocabulary for understanding the ways in which we are inextricably interdependent. That makes it hard even to turn the public conversation in such directions. But I try.

    And am sometimes rewarded. When I have enough time to explain what I mean, I often find that readers say that they agree. But that doesn’t happen nearly often enough, because the opposite message is so much louder and more frequent.

    Finally, I find your volunteerism and community involvement very admirable, Doug. But volunteering specifically in your neighborhood school is not the only way to demonstrate that you care. For my part, I was seldom in a position to do that — although I went to PTA meetings when I could get away from the office in time (often having to enter the room in mid-meeting), and my wife did serve on the Improvement Council at our local elementary school.

    You wouldn’t have seen me speaking out in those meetings, though. As a journalist — and one responsible for coverage of the schools at various times — that would have been seen as a conflict of interest. Particularly since my own kids were students there. If I said, “This school should follow THIS policy…,” no one in the room would have been able to entirely separate that from the fact that the newspaper guy was saying it, or that the thing I was seeking to influence was the place MY kids went to school. Because while I know that newspaper editors are not omnipotent, some people perceive them as being powerful, and it would not have been taken in the spirit in which it was offered. And it would have compromised the newspaper.

    I DID, however, do what Burl did — I was once on the board of a private school — St. Mary’s Catholic in Jackson, TN. That was NOT seen as a conflict, because it WAS private. There were no issues of public policy involved.

    This reminds me of a good anecdote arising from that experience… but I think I’ll tell it later. I need to run do some other stuff right now…

  4. KP

    There are very sound reasons why parent satisfaction is not a good enough measure of school quality if you’re talking about the expenditure of public funds. For one, good and fine if parents are satisfied, but if you’re spending my tax money, I want to be satisfied too. That means I need to know how you’re using the money and how well you’re doing compared with the other schools I pay for.

    For another, parent satisfaction has NEVER been a good indicator of school performance, whether you’re talking about private schools or public. Look at any of the surveys that show how parents think public education in South Carolina is dismal, but their own schools are just fine — even if they’re not even approaching fine. Parents are happy with schools for a lot of reasons, but that’s no substitute for good academic performance.

    Private schools don’t have to tell parents how well they are performing compared with other schools, private or public. And I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked to look at test reports for individual students because parents can’t make much sense of them.

    Public money means public accountability. If tax money goes to private schools, they need to follow the same rules as everybody else.

  5. Brad

    … starting with admitting everybody who wants to attend. Something that would very quickly undermine the widespread notion that private schools are inherently “better” than public…

  6. Doug Ross


    You miss the point. You want to compare consumers and citizens. There are no consumers. There are no mechanisms in place to behave like a consumer (i.e. school choice). You have set up a false dichotomy.

    There are recipients of government services and there are people who fund those services. When you are in the group that puts more in than you get out, you WISH there was a consumer option. There isn’t and there never has been.

    How often do you hear people complain about the cost of police, fire, and library services? They don’t because the cost meets or exceeds the perceived value. People complain about schools because the value returned doesn’t match the cost.

  7. Brad

    “People complain about schools because the value returned doesn’t match the cost.”

    Actually, it does — every bit as much as police, fire, and library services. It’s just that a lot of people — a lot of white, middle-class people — have talked themselves into believing that supporting public schools isn’t worth it. In SC, they started talking themselves into it around 1970. That’s when the schools were integrated in this state. White flight began immediately, and was followed by this new idea, that went “My kids aren’t in the public schools any more, so why should I pay for other kids’ education (especially THOSE kids, upon whom the effort is wasted).”

    And no, I’m not talking about you, Doug. You’re highly motivated by an ideology. I’m talking about the majority of people who don’t want to pay for public schools.

    But you and they have something in common. You buy into the idea that there are two kinds of people: “There are recipients of government services and there are people who fund those services.”

    When in truth, there’s just one kind of people. There’s just one category, and all of us are in it.

  8. KP

    Really, why DO people think that private schools are better than public? The elite schools might possibly be better (who knows? They don’t take the same tests, except for the SAT and ACT, and they’re working with an entirely different population of kids), but the vast majority of private schools aren’t nearly as good — academically — as public schools. They’re just socially insulated.

  9. Doug Ross


    ““There are recipients of government services and there are people who fund those services.””

    Do you disagree that some people are net recipients and others are net contributors? My family’s total state and local taxes (income, property, sales, gas, fees, etc.) exceed $15K per year. I gotta check out a lot of books out of the library to balance that out. All I want is for equity in the system. If we’re all in this together, we all should share equally in the cost. If everyone was paying the same, we’d see far more accountability.

  10. Brad

    Yes, I agree. Some people ARE more blessed with material wealth than others — and therefore pay more in taxes. (Particularly if they spend a lot on taxable items, since so much of our state tax structure is now built on the shaky foundation of sales taxes.) Of course, I would guess that you get more than $15k in benefit from your taxes, or at least something comparable, but I don’t know how to calculate that.

  11. bud

    Anyone who drives a car or flys frequently probably gets way more out government services than they pay in. I’d say 15k is a bargain.

  12. Rob

    This column sounds like it was written by someone who obviously doesn’t have any kids in a unsatisfactory South Carolina public school.

    What is missing from this piece is any sort of trying to even begin to understand real people and their concerns.

    But I suppose we can tell parents who have little choice than to send their kids to a bad school that they need to begin to think of themselves as “citizens, not consumers”. That will make it all better I’m sure.

  13. Steven Davis

    Does Doug get more state and local benefits for his $15,000 in taxes than someone who pays $300? Does he get more police protection, are his streets better paved, is the fire department going to prioritize his house higher than others, does his local library have newer books, etc… The answer is a definite “nope”, he gets the exact same services as everyone else including those who pay little or nothing.

  14. Brad

    No, the answer is a definite “yep.”

    A person with a nice house and nice cars on a nice street is getting a LOT more out of police and fire protection, and other infrastructure of society, than a person who lacks those things. The value of what is being protected is so much greater.

    And without those protections — and being in a district with a reputation for good schools and other amenities — his property doesn’t HAVE that value to begin with.

    And Rob, you are confused. The people who don’t understand real people or the real world are those who think that if they hand out vouchers in a community that lacks the population density to have a supermarket, private providers will automatically flow to that community, attracted by that thin stream of money, to build excellent schools that will actually admit those kids. That fantasy ignores everything we know about humanity and markets. Which is why it’s so ironic that people who believe the market is God would advocate it.

  15. Doug Ross

    “A person with a nice house and nice cars on a nice street is getting a LOT more out of police and fire protection, and other infrastructure of society, than a person who lacks those things. The value of what is being protected is so much greater.”

    You have been spouting that for years with no evidence. I haven’t seen a police car in my neighborhood for months. And I don’t think I have seen a fire truck in the eight years I’ve lived there.

    The police are where the crime is. We are subsidizing the enforcement of crime WHERE IT HAPPENS, not preventing it from moving out to the suburbs.

    Are you telling me that the police are somehow creating a virtual border that keeps the criminals out of my neighborhood – or is it really that there are fewer crimes in my neighborhood because the people there are better citizens?

    The fire trucks go where the fires are. It has nothing to do with how much you pay in property taxes. They don’t respond any quicker – in fact they are far more likely to have to deal with fires in mobile homes and cheaply manufactured housing than they will be with brick homes in my neighborhood.

    This line of reasoning is so off the wall that the first time I saw it in a Cindi Scoppe column a few years ago, I literally laughed out loud. It is beyond ludicrous. It’s one of those statements that you think if you say it, it must be true. It defies logic.

  16. Brad

    Wow. Again with the “somebody else is getting something, and I resent it” shtick. That really surprises me every time it comes out of you, Doug. You’re a decent guy, and you do work to help the poor, and everything. So why are you always saying things like this?

    Do you actually believe that when the police act to suppress crime elsewhere in your community, it does not in any way make the entire community safer?

    Yes, you pay taxes to protect the ENTIRE community, and yes, the fire trucks go to the fire. It would be pretty silly for them to go to YOUR house, when it’s somebody else’s house that’s on fire.

    So, what are you saying? Are you saying it would be legitimate if, God forbid, one day YOUR house catches fire, and somebody across town starts kvetching about how he’s paying taxes to protect YOUR house? Of course he would! HIS house has never caught fire! His taxes are wasted!

    This line of thinking is so ENTIRELY alien to me, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that other folks actually think this way.

    When you were a kid, and you complained that Johnny’s piece of cake was bigger than yours, didn’t your Mom ever say, “Don’t concern yourself with what HE’S GETTING; concern yourself with what YOU’RE DOING…”?

    Or did she say that, and you rejected it?

    I’m just trying to understand this point of view.

  17. Abba

    I remember reading Brad’s column when it first appeared in 2005 and thinking how well it captured the positive concept of everyone contributing to public services which benefit everyone, either directly (for some) or indirectly (for everyone). Thanks for reprinting it.

    Maybe we should refer to community services and benefits, rather than public services and benefits which has almost been turned into an epithet by some folks.

  18. Maude Lebowski

    Rob says: This column sounds like it was written by someone who obviously doesn’t have any kids in a unsatisfactory South Carolina public school.

    Do you? If so, what makes it unsatisfactory? Have you researched public school choice options in your district? Have you sought out a public charter, magnet, or Montessori school?

  19. Doug Ross


    You still don’t grasp how wrong you are on this.

    If I pay $20 for fire protection service and someone else pays $5, how is my protection better? If my house is burning, the fire department has $25 to spend to save it.

    The part you truly miss is that you want ENFORCED participation at varying degrees of contribution to demonstrate community spirit. I say we all should contribute equally for the same thing – in fact, just like home insurance for people who live in flood zones, the people in the areas with a statistically higher chance of needing the service should pay more.

    Your take on police protection also defies logic. For me to pay higher taxes so that the police can stop a drug deal in downtown Columbia doesn’t make Blythewood any safer. You would have to make the HUGE (illogical) leap that crime is fluid. That the drug deal would move twenty miles north if not for containing it where it is. Crime is where the criminals are.

    Part of the problem is your proximity to downtown. You work there, you spend most of your time there. You live nearby. You think the community is Five Points to the Vista. It’s not.

    You keep trying to make it to be selfishness on my part. It’s not. It’s about fairness and EQUAL community involvement. The more you pay, the more you care about what you get.

  20. Steven Davis

    Why don’t I have one of those police substations in my neighborhood? I pay plenty of taxes, a lot more than those people in housing projects… and they have a substation.

    I see a Lexington County/City patrol car come through my cul-de-sac about 3-4 times per year. Is that what my tax dollars are paying for, a quarterly drive-by?

    And yes, if I’m paying thousands of dollars in taxes and my house catches fire the exact same time someone who doesn’t pay taxes has their house catch fire, I expect and demand my house be visited by the fire department first. After all, I’m probably paying for their kids public education, it’s the least I should be able to expect.

  21. Steve Gordy

    On this issue, it seems to me we had a debate with a person who will not be named, on Brad’s old blog at THE STATE, about how vouchers would create such a wealth of business opportunities in places like Bishopville and Allendale that private entrepreneurs would flock to open private schools there. I don’t think the business case for this scenario was ever made.

  22. Rob


    Used to. Lots of things. Yes. Yes.

    And Brad, you are confused. I’m sure there are plenty of smart, deserving kids living in close proximity to private schools who could otherwise gain admission to those schools but for the fact that their parents can’t afford to pay tuition – so instead the state pays to educate that child in an environment that does not meet his or her academic needs. Why, I can even think off-hand of one acquaintance who desperately wanted to get her son into Cardinal Newman so he could take advantage of a wider array of Advanced Placement options. Instead, because the mother couldn’t afford the tuition payment plan and there wasn’t sufficient need-based aid available her son is stuck going to C.A. Johnson – which is where she as a parent does not want her child attending. Of course, all of this is ironic given that the USCCB supports vouchers and tax credits as a matter of domestic
    education policy (as do the majority of your typical middle class suburban South Carolina Catholics – you need to be on board, Brad!). As to your skepticism about educational options coming to those large areas that really are economically poor and geographically isolated, well, we never will really know what would happen until we unleash the power of the marketplace in K-12 education (how ’bout that as a soundbite?)

  23. Doug Ross

    And here’s a perfect example of how the property tax system is unfair – in the Property Tax Relief bill is an exemption from school operating millage calculated on the first $100,000 of the appraised value of residential property.

    Why should a person living in a home valued at $100K or less pay no property taxes for the schools? Since the school operating costs are normally the highest portion of local taxes, how does this even approach fairness and citizenship? It’s a free ride on the backs of others.

  24. Steven Davis

    Burl, it depends where you live. A million dollars in Los Angeles or New York City is different than a million dollars in Toadlick, NC.

  25. Maude Lebowski

    Rob says: Maude, Used to. Lots of things.

    Care to share specifics? I’m wondering what criteria you used to deem your child’s school unsatisfactory and what steps you took to correct the situation. You accuse Brad of bias because he is (supposedly) writing from the perspective of someone whose children never attended an unsatisfactory public school. I’d like to know what specifically has given you that perspective.

  26. Rob


    I’d say a public school that offers little choice in the way of Advanced Placement courses, that tries to lump college-prep and advanced-placement kids into choosing “vocational” tracks, that doesn’t effectively discipline unruly and disruptive students, and that doesn’t even have a PTA is an unsatisfactory one in my opinion as a parent. What do you do to rectify this? Well, you talk to your child’s teachers, guidance counselors, and principals. You write to the district office and show up at school board meetings. And if that doesn’t work, then you take your business elsewhere.

  27. Burl Burlingame

    Even in Los Angeles or NYC, a million dollars isn’t chump change.

    But then I’ve never understood why conservatives feel that an educated populace is a bad thing.

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