“If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools”

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 5, 2011

An excellent column by the great and good Don Boudreaux:

Suppose that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education. Residents of each county would pay taxes on their properties. Nearly half of those tax revenues would then be spent by government officials to build and operate supermarkets. Each family would be assigned to a particular supermarket according to its home address. And each family would get its weekly allotment of groceries—”for free”—from its neighborhood public supermarket.

No family would be permitted to get groceries from a public supermarket outside of its district. Fortunately, though, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, families would be free to shop at private supermarkets that charge directly for the groceries they offer. Private-supermarket families, however, would receive no reductions in their property taxes.

Of course, the quality of public supermarkets would play a major role in families’ choices about where to live. Real-estate agents and chambers of commerce in prosperous neighborhoods would brag about the high quality of public supermarkets to which families in their cities and towns are assigned.

Being largely protected from consumer choice, almost all public supermarkets would be worse than private ones. In poor counties the quality of public supermarkets would be downright abysmal. Poor people—entitled in principle to excellent supermarkets—would in fact suffer unusually poor supermarket quality.

Read the whole thing. Relatedly, note that Mitch Daniels has succeeded in bringing choice to the Indiana school system:

Under the new law, the state will provide 7,500 publicly financed scholarships of up to $4,500 a year to Hoosier elementary school kids who have been in public schools for the last two semesters and then want to attend another school, public or private. That scholarship number rises to 15,000 in the second year, with no cap in the third year and beyond. High school students can also qualify for a voucher of up to 90% of the state public school support, which varies by school district.

The thinking here is that parents have to give the public schools a try, but then their children shouldn’t be trapped by inferior schools merely because of where they live. The voucher is means-tested by family income up to a maximum of roughly $60,000 or so, with lower-income families getting a larger payment. Mr. Daniels says about half of all Hoosier school children will qualify.

Parents can take the money to any certified school in the state, including religious schools. Though the unions will no doubt sue to block the reform, the law should pass both state and federal constitutional muster because it is religiously neutral and parents choose the school for their children.

Another common objection to vouchers is that they cost the state money by spending twice for each student, but Indiana’s plan may save money because Indianapolis public schools now spend about $9,000 per student, or twice what the vouchers will cost. The law also changes the state’s school funding formula so it will be based on current year enrollment, giving public schools an incentive to improve to retain students or lose money.

The Indiana law also extends school choice in another way, by authorizing a $1,000 tax deduction for families that pay out of pocket for private school expenses. This helps middle-class parents pay for books, computers and the like if their children don’t attend public schools.

I have written before that the United States could do a whole lot worse than to make Mitch Daniels its next President. Bringing about school choice in his home state is just the latest feather in the Governor’s cap, and will do more to improve the state of education than will just about any scheme concocted in Washington by bureaucrats with no knowledge whatsoever of the needs of localities all around the country.

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