Recently, in the news media a rather surprising announcement emerged out of Germany: Education will again be free--i.e. tuition is eliminated. It was as if the government had rediscovered the public nature of education the acquisition of which by each of us benefits all of us. Before this announcement, some countries, among them the Finland, Austria, Sweden, Norway, (to list a salient few), had not crossed the threshold into pay-for-education as public policy. (see: Scholar&Dev.) Germany's policy reversal was surprising news since there has been trending in Europe, and indeed around the world, efforts to privatize functions, heretofore, presumed to be the exclusive domain of government. Germany, and her European counterparts, understands education's pro-growth and anti-income inequality role, and, therefore, opts to provision it for "free". However, we, in the US, have been embarked on a giddying privatization binge of education under the delusion that such a policy inflection will both reduce the cost of education and increase its social benefit, including its quality (or at the very least, intersect its private benefits and its private costs, while ignoring its social benefit).
The opprobrium to public education is reflected in the low pay teachers receive, and in the propensity of state governors to cut spending on education at the first whiff of a budget shortfall. One state governor, Rick Perry in a brain-freeze movement, reflecting the views of his co-debaters, and perhaps even in constituents, stated: " . . . is three agencies of government when I get there [White House] that are gone. . . . Education, . . . " (see: The Wire) As a result of funding cuts, our students are in hock, according to some accounts, for $1.2 trillion. Some students are leveraged out; this debt overhang becomes part of their cost-of-living calculus for paying down their student loans; as well assuming car payments, and house mortgages. Of course, this would never happen in a world where getting an education is a public responsibility. European students have not racked up anything near the potentially bankrupting sort of debt their American counterparts have. This debt is the conjoined twin ills Americans face: bankruptcy due to the lack of free public education and free healthcare, both of which can sink an unfortunate American into the abject poverty, following a life of diligent hard work and judicious saving.
There's an ongoing effort--strategy--organized around a worldview that pits the role of government against the role of business in society. In the U.S., business is gaining the ascendancy--business and the captains of industry are perceived as indispensable and government unnecessary. There is a very little bias in this worldview as it sees the totality of the role of government as dangerous, making the defeat of this ominous evil paramount. Hence, government must be whittled down to nothing and drowned in a bathtub. Aided and abetted by SCOTUS, a new trinity rises, embodied in the god business, god profit, and the ghost of the free market, namely, the invisible hand. Business becomes too big to fail, an assertion that rationalizes huge sums for the bailout of businesses that have been mismanaged. SCOTUS also endows money with a freedom of speech functionality, by taking it outside its primary roles as a medium of exchange and a unit of account. The combination of these rulings set the stage for much misbehavior--money can buy the ear of our legislators; and failed business practices are rewarded with financial bailouts (i.e. a form of bankruptcy protection). Students are not accorded any such reverence. Failure to pay back student loans can taint their credit and ruin their future financial health.
In all fairness, the promised elimination of government agencies such as the Department of Education is part of a larger effort at privatization that includes prisons, roads, healthcare (ACA), social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a host of many other functions of government. It is also manifested in attacks against unionism, the resistance to raising the minimum wage, and failure in extending the unemployment benefits. It explains the takedown of solar panels on the White House rooftops; the disparaging of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Energy, the rejection of global warming and humans' role in it, and the promotion of off-shore oil drilling and fracking. There has even been a conversation about the use of mercenaries to fight ISIS: Refer to The Times for some arguments pro mercenaries in lieu of U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq. These efforts are some aspects of a quest for a government so diminutive that it could be swallowed up by its own irrelevance.
I reiterate a truism--that is, education is a public good. Germany should be lauded for returning to the natural state--namely, of tuition-free education. I would argue very strongly as I have done in a previous piece that education in the U.S. would also be free. I acknowledge that 'there no free lunches.' And it would be naïve to ignore the real costs of resources used in the provision of education at all levels--the infrastructure (building and teaching equipment) and the opportunity cost of teachers who might have paid for her own education. These costs have to be borne by society and they might show up as higher taxes, which mean choices have to be made (as between civilian and military goods) with the limited supply of our resources. The estimated cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is $6 trillion, which could have financed the cost of education. The returns to investment in human capital might be greater than returns to the costs of fighting wars. This does not mean that civilian and military investments are mutually exclusive--no society can be complacent in the face of potential foreign aggression. A climate of national security must prevail if other pieces of national existence can flourish--including education. However, proportionality of expenditures in education versus war must be considered in the national budget and, maybe, investment in education should be given a greater standing.