Subsidizing Inefficiency, Back to School Edition

Earlier this week we wrote about how relocating schools out of neighborhoods to remote campuses is damaging to communities. That was really a non-financial argument, which we tend to stay away from around here. So today we are going to turn an accepted concept on its head to demonstrate another way that we as a society subsidize inefficient development patterns to our own demise.

Part of a school district's operating costs is to pay to bus children from their home to their school. In terms of expense, consider these two extremes: 

  • The cost of busing the child that lives ten blocks away.
  • The cost of busing the child that lives ten miles away. 

Obviously, just in terms of time and fuel, it is going to cost much less to bus the child that lives closer to the school. The child of the family that has located way out of town is going to cost more to transport.

Now many of you are saying, so what? We don't discriminate against kids based on where they live and we've pledged, as public schools, to educate everyone. That means picking them up and driving them in, regardless of the relative cost. 

But we do discriminate. Our local school district here in Brainerd, like many others across the country, has discontinued offering busing services to those closest to the school. If you live within a mile, you walk or find a ride. Never mind that these are typically our poorest kids (for other reasons, too numerous and too unnecessary). They walk, while the kids that live more remotely are picked up very near their homes.

What if we reversed this thinking? 

What if we provided tremendous bus service within a mile of each school. We pick up the kids on each block and we bring them to school and home again afterwards. This would give us a pretty good estimate of the cost per kid for transportation.

Outside of a mile, where the cost per kid goes up along with the inefficiency of the development pattern, we charge the family for the extra cost. You sign a quarterly contract, pay the school district, the bus picks your kid up and delivers them. The school is still subsidizing the cost but not beyond what it is for everyone else. You can choose to drive your kid and pick them up, if that is your prerogative.

If you want to live on a large lot ten miles from town and enjoy that lifestyle, why should society not expect you to pay for the extra cost of that lifestyle? 

Now obviously there would need to be some exceptions for farm kids - farms are a necessary part of the economy (unlike 5-acre estates in the countryside) and so our country needs those kids and those families on that farm. We need to acknowledge that and, if we are going to subsidize something, this would be it.

But for the rest, it is a lifestyle choice. One choice costs society a lot of money, not just in gas, buses and drivers to move kids but in miles of highway we can't afford. The other choice, in comparison, costs relatively little. We do ourselves damage in the long run when we subsidize these two different lifestyle choices as if they were the same. Worse yet, when we penalize the efficient and less costly choice and continue to subsidize the more expensive we simply encourage people to live in a way that we can not financially afford in the long-term.

Building Strong Towns requires an understanding of these sometimes invisible subsidies - subsidies that have become such a part of our culture that nobody thinks twice when we tell the kid that lives ten blocks away to walk to school so we can save money that allows the kid that lives ten miles away to get picked up at their door.