31 January 2017

New York State: Schools Way Out of Control

Stephen Kershnar
Education Spending and the Middle-Class-Parent Test
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 23, 2017

            New Yorkers who just paid their taxes have got to be wondering why they let their schools spend beyond any sense of decency.   

            Consider the spending orgy. Emma Brown writing in The Washington Post report that in 2013, the U.S. states’ education spending averaged $10,700. This is generous. In contrast, New York spends $19,800, $9,000 more per student than average. This is outrageous.

To see this another way, consider that in 2013, New York school districts spent $59 billion on the public elementary-secondary school system. Only California spent more ($66 billion) and it has nearly twice as many people. All this spending accomplishes little. Nationally, the Education Week Resource Center found that New York’s schools are at best average when compared by math and reading proficiency in the 4th and 8th grades. 

Even in this big spending state, Dunkirk and Fredonia hold their own. A 2016 Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data found that per student Dunkirk spends a piggish $25,200 per student. Fredonia is less piggish, but still plenty piggy, at $21,500 per student.

Someone has to pay for all this spending, which unsurprisingly leads to a weighty tax burden. The U.S. Census Bureau (again using 2013 numbers) found New York to be among the select few states that spend more than $55 on schools per $1,000 in personal income.

            New Yorkers’ generosity can be seen in that fellow citizens in effect give the average family with two children $40,000 a year. This gift is rarely accompanied by gratitude. When was the last time you heard a mother of three children thank her fellow citizens for the nearly $60,000 in benefits her family was given? You are more likely to hear her complain about some benefit she thinks her children are entitled to, but didn’t receive. When the complaint comes from an unwed mother without real income, this is a bit much.    

            Here is a rule of thumb for when school spending is an unjust burden on taxpayers. If most middle class parents would not spend their own money for a school with all the bells and whistles, it is wrong to force others to do so. On this test, if most middle class parents would not pay an extra $9,000 a year for a school that has gym, shop, art, music, drama, etc., then taxpayers shouldn’t be made to do so. The same is true for afterschool drama, music, and sports programs or for the army of extra administrators as well as the nurses, guidance counselors, psychologists, and so on that drive up school costs. The underlying idea here is that if the person who most loves a child and stands to benefit from her success does not think a school with all the fixings is worth the money, neither should taxpayers.  

            Even if the amount of money spent on schools were reasonable, it is worth considering whether more of the spending should focus on core subjects, specifically, English, history, math, and science. It is an interesting question whether the array of programs and employees lessen the focus on the most important subjects.
A common objection to the above line of criticism is that regardless of whether they have cheap parents, the discretionary programs benefit children. Because children should be our priority, the spending is worthwhile.

One problem with this objection is that it is unclear whether these programs would disappear if they weren’t in the public schools. Many children do not receive free or subsidized food and yet eat well. Similarly, many sports and arts programs would exist in the private sector were they not paid for by taxpayers. Travel teams in soccer, hockey, and wrestling and private dance studios are often very well coached and run, and are at least as good as their public school counterparts. If the concern is for the poor, then they could be subsidized directly in the way that Medicaid, food stamps, and free school lunches do so. Surely, this is more efficient than making taxpayers pay for recreational activities of doctors’ and lawyers’ kids.  

            A second problem with this objection is that not every benefit is worth the cost and it is far from clear that outside of the core curriculum, government-school programs in states like New York and California are worth the cost. Were the money spent on such programs returned to taxpayers or, perhaps, spent by the government elsewhere, it would do quite a lot of good. Whether it would do more good than the current spending on discretionary programs in government schools is an empirical question and not that one can be answered merely by citing a benefit to students.

            The real problem with the spending level, though, isn’t whether it is displacing private programs or making the world a better place, it’s the sheer weight of school taxes. Were New York to have excellent schools, rather than mediocre ones, taxes would still be too damn high. People have their own projects in life. They want to have children, buy houses, invest in their own businesses, give to charities, or work fewer hours. Forcing them every year to hand over thousands of hard earned dollars for other people’s children is unreasonable, especially when the money is spent guidance counselors, golf coaches, school psychologists, additional administrators, and so on. Many people would rather spend their money on themselves and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For some people, their property tax burden costs as much as their mortgage. For some retirees, taxes painfully cut into their income. For all but the wealthy, property taxes in New York are obnoxious. The fact that parents of school age children seem to ungrateful for how hard their neighbors had to work to pay for their children to go to a school with all the bells and whistles just pours salt into the wound. 

New York needs to reduce school spending to a decent level. 

11 January 2017

Celebrating Christmas and Opposing Hell

Stephen Kershnar
Underlying Christmas is the Offensive Doctrine of Hell
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 26, 2016

            Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a fun, beautiful, and loving holiday. While Jesus’ birthday is not known, it is most often celebrated on December 25th. The holiday celebrates the idea that God came into the world as a man to atone for other men’s sins. Underlying this picture, though, is the threat of hell. Hell is everlasting suffering that is forced onto those who fail to love God, are unrepentant sinners, or otherwise fail to avail themselves of the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. Thus, a joyous holiday has in the background one of the most mean-spirited doctrines in all of Christianity.

The belief in permanent hell or annihilation is part of the Catholic and many Protestant traditions. The notion that many will not be saved can be seen in Luke 13:23 and Matt 7:13-14. In addition, the New Testament appears to refer to hell. For example, there are references to “everlasting destruction” (Thessalonians 1:9), “eternal fire” (Jude 7), “tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). On some lines of Catholicism and Protestantism, then, God sends some people, the devil, and some fallen angels to hell.

The argument that God would not send human beings to hell is straightforward. God would send someone to hell only if justice permits it as a means of punishing them. Justice permits such a punishment only if someone has does something infinitely wrong or has an infinitely bad character. Human beings do not meet either condition.

            Consider whether a human beings could do anything to another human beings that might result in their deserving an infinite punishment, such as hell. In general, a person cannot infinitely wrong another person and rarely, if ever, tries to do so. Killing, murder, and rape are finite wrongs in that they cause others a finite amount of lost years or suffering. Murdering a young man, for example, might take away seventy wonderful years, but this is still a finite loss.

The only chance one person has to infinitely wrong another is to send the second to hell. This might happen, for example, when one person kills an atheist immediately before he was about to repent his sins and atheism. But a person they can’t send another to hell unless hell already exists. This begs the question as to why God would create hell. It makes no sense to create hell if the only thing someone can do to deserve it is to send another there.   

            People also cannot do anything to God that would result in their deserving hell. Most people do not wrong God. More specifically, people do not violate God’s rights by touching his body or taking his stuff. Nor do they directly harm him in other ways. Few, if any, even try to wrong God. They wrong other people through murder, rape, theft, etc., but this does not wrong God unless he owns people. God doesn’t own people because they’re not his property. Specifically, God doesn’t own people the way that ranchers own cattle. Even if human beings were to wrong God by killing or damaging his property, the wrong is not infinitely serious unless, again, hell exists.

One objection is that God does not impose hell. Rather it is a choice of the people who choose to separate themselves from God. However, if God intentionally makes the consequences of people’s choices harsh, this makes it a punishment. Consider this analogy. If a school principal sets up a system whereby the janitor whips students who get caught dealing drugs, he punishes them, even if, in some sense, they’ve made themselves liable for the harsh treatment. Similarly, if God sets up a system when people suffer greatly for refusing to accept him in their lives or for sinning, he punishes them.

A second objection is that in allowing people to go to hell, God merely refuses to provide them with wonderful benefits rather than harming them. By analogy, if a man pays for only some neighborhood children to go to a fancy private school, he doesn’t wrong those whom he doesn’t pay for. The idea here is that hell is separation from God and with it comes the loss of his love as well as the loss of purpose and community. Because there is no duty to give out these wonderful benefits, those sent to hell have not been punished. However, if someone can provide a wonderful benefit to another and can do so at no cost to himself, failure to do so indicates too little love and kindness. Sending persons to heaven is a benefit that God can provide at no cost to himself and hence his failure to do so would show that he has too little love and kindness. This is impossible for a perfect being. 

A third objector might respond that life in heaven is only possible for a person who chooses to join God. Heaven, the objector argues, would be miserable for someone who does not accept God or rejoice in his love. The idea here is that a human being who does not deserve heaven would suffer there because he is unsuited to join God. However, in accord with love and kindness, God would then provide a life that is as good as possible for those unsuited to join him. He would not condemn them to eternal fiery punishment. If this is not possible, then a perfect being like God would annihilate them rather than send them to hell.

It is a shame that such a joyous holiday celebrates the fact that the celebrants will avoid hell while many of their brethren will roast in the eternal fire. Better to have a doctrine based on love. Better yet, a doctrine that is true.