a personal note on public funding for education

my stance on public education

my stance on public education

Yesterday while I was walking to campus I was listening to a Fresh Air podcast on how Congressman Paul Ryan is Shaping the GOP. One of Ryan’s favorite ideas appears to be that of Ayn Rand, that to be truly free, we must avoid depending on others and find a way to support ourselves. He’s applying these same beliefs to policy on precisely what size the government should be.

This angered me. I came from a middle income household; my mom was a 5th grade teacher and my dad worked in quality assurance for food and lenses, and neither were paid particularly well for their trade. The only way I was going to make it to college was to work my ass off in high school, work a part time job to pay for AP exams, get a lot of scholarships and borrow a lot of money. So that’s what I did. And when I made it to college, I worked part time, I accrued massive debt, and I made it into a great Ph.D. program. I was lucky enough to have chosen a field where Ph.D. students get paid out of public research funds, but I wasn’t paid much (certainly not enough to support myself, my wife and my newborn daughter). So I borrowed more, I earned two public fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, and we squeaked by for six years financially. After 23 years of public education, I’d used $91,000 in Oregon taxpayer’s money to fund my K-12 education, $36,000 of Oregon taxpayer’s money to subsidize my Oregon State tuition, $7,000 in Pell grants and free interest from U.S. taxpayers, $76,000 from an NSF Fellowship, and another $187,500 from an NDSEG Fellowship. And even with all of this help from public funding, I still had to work part time during high school and college and was still left with $50,000 of student loans to repay.

When you start to look at the cost of educating U.S. citizens—whether someone like me who goes for a terminal degree, or someone who simply wants a college degree—it becomes immediately clear that a person can work incredibly hard to become a valuable contributor to society, fully realizing Ryan and Rand’s vision, and still depend a great deal of support from taxpayers. This idea that people are either self-supporting or dependent leeches is an entirely false dichotomy.

The real question we should be asking is whether sharing the cost of educating our youth is something worthwhile and something to be shared. I know that in my own case that without public funding, I simply could not have gone to college. I’m sure I would have been successful in some other way; I would have taught myself, perhaps going to a community college. Or perhaps my parents would accrued their own massive debt to send me anyway. Either way, the 100 million taxpayers who each gave me less than half a penny of their money probably don’t miss it. And I hope that the work I do to educate our children, advance science, and invent new technologies that make our lives easier is worth that small investment. After all, after a time, the world we live in is not the one we make, but the one our children and grandchildren make for us.