California, B.A.

Posted: Sep 20, 2000 12:00 AM
The California college-grant operation has gone almost unnoticed. It is supremely interesting and may prove a model for orderly welfarism. The arrangement, scheduled to start next year, calls for granting a state subvention of $9,700 to all low-income and many middle-income graduates of California high schools who scored B or better at school and go on to a private college in the state. (A lesser sum is available for similarly qualified students who want to attend a public university in the state.) Here are some questions.

If we assume that 40 percent of the high schoolers got B's or better in 1990-2000, what will be the likely grade average in 2000-2010? Optimists will put it this way: The added inducement of $38,800 toward tuition (four years at $9,700) will spur intellectual applications among children, and that is hardly to be discouraged or criticized.

The difficulty here, of course, is that the giving out of grades is in part a subjective exercise. It is the evaluation of a student's work by a teacher. When grading time comes, that teacher is going to ask himself (herself), Am I dooming this kid's future by failing to give him a B? Will I then be responsible for whatever failures in his (OK, her) life derive from having less than a college education, since he could never afford one if he needed to pay his own way?

This invites reflection on the whole meritocratic idea. Is there a judge out there (in California, the answer is that there is a judge out there who will say anything) who will come along and say that to give state money to Alice and deny it to Joan merely because Alice scored better at school is to exercise discrimination? It may be all right for the teacher to decide on the relative accomplishments of Alice and Joan, but it is not OK for her ruling in the matter to involve public money.

This line of argument may seem preposterous, but what is preposterous can become law. A couple of judges have told Texas students they can't pray at a school event.

If California moves in the direction of giving every student a B, or if it moves in the direction of enlarging (further) the subsidy to include C and D students, then what we have got is free college education for everybody. And it is time to ask, What is so bad about that? What is bad about it is that we have another entitlement, and a firm commandment in public policy ought to be: No more entitlements.

A second consideration asks the old question: Who is subsidizing whom? It is absolutely documented that people with a college degree earn more than those without that degree. A recent figure puts earnings at 40 percent more. Doesn't this mean that medium-to-low income earners in California are going to be subsidizing medium-to-high income earners? A California resident begins paying taxes no matter what his income is -- excise taxes are the same for indigents and millionaires, and where the demand is inflexible, or nearly so, as when buying gasoline or cigarettes, tax money is going out regressively, paid by the low-income he/she.

The counterargument can be used, namely that the greater incidence of higher-earning citizens brought on by the proposed college subsidy will elevate the economic plateau, causing benefits to rich and poor alike. Yes, a good point, but not one that Democrats are likely to run off with, smelling as it does of supply-side.

But here are the virtues of the idea:

(1) It is an individual state, California, acting on its own, unrelated to Washington, D.C. In this space, over the years, we have stressed the unintelligibility of the "round-trip dollar," namely the dollar that travels from Rhode Island to Washington and then back to Rhode Island from Washington, having spent there an expensive night out on the town.

(2) California is swimming in a huge fiscal surplus at this moment and feels the impulse to spread its welfarist wings. The theater of operations is education. A huge question in the state is the dismal performance of many public schools. There are schools there which, if they give out B grades, are doing so as an act of misguided charity, or else because they stumbled into a student who has contrived to learn athwart the obstacles of bad teachers. Designed to accost this most fundamental problem is Proposition 38, a voucher-oriented measure that would help those families stranded in bad schools but unable, for lack of far less than $9,700, to get what students most need: a productive educational launch in life.