How to Change the World

Tragedy of the Commons

 

Garrett Hardin's  "Tragedy of the Commons" article in  the December 13, 1968 edition of Science Magazine helps provide a better understanding of what a social good is and how it can be sustained.   Hardin explained that  absolute freedom in regard to individual use of a common good results in a negative outcome.  Preventing a negative outcome can be achieved through either privatizing the social good or establishing government control in order to exclude, or limit, access to the common good.  This excludability, which is the key to sustainability, can be achieved either through private or public ownership along with the potential to create cultural and reciprocity mechanisms that would encourage good stewardship. The purpose of this essay is to frame public education in terms of a common good, describe a potential “tragedy of the commons” situation, and recommend corrective actions.

 

Public education is clearly a common asset -- in fact, a specified period of education is compulsory in every state. Public education is essentially locally controlled and funded in large part by local property taxes. For example, Fairfax County, Virginia, has a $2.5 billion public school budget of which 72% is financed by real estate and personal property taxes. A US Census 2011 report on state and local revenue and expenditures, and indicates that elementary and secondary education is almost exclusively paid by local governments ($558 billion) with revenue from real estate and personal property tax.  An example of a tragedy of the commons situation could be increasing student populations where budgets are held constant, education systems decrease in quality through higher class size, less funding for special programs, etc. If the student population is from families that hold less real estate and personal property, they are benefiting while the current population will be asked to pay more or have services of the common good reduced.

 

In a number of US communities, the Hispanic population from Central America is increasing and represents the fastest growing foreign born population. Unfortunately, this group has a higher percentage of poverty and less English language skills than other Hispanics.  According to Pew Hispanic Center research, there was a 14% increase in the Central American segment of foreign born population in the US from 2000 to 2009 while Mexico registered only a 1% increase. Not only is the Central American origin population growing at a rate 14 times higher than the Mexican origin population, they are concentrating in specific areas and have the potential to negatively impact public education in these communities.  

 

A government solution to this situation would require careful assessment of how best to manage increased pressure on the school system. A key aspect of helping to address this problem would be to relieve the pressure that is driving a disproportionate number of Central Americans to emigrate to the US.  As part of a comprehensive response to protecting local public education systems, the US should assess the social and economic triggers of out migration in Central America, design foreign assistance programs to help mitigate key constraints, and invest significant resources in these programs. Promoting social and economic development in Central America is in the national interest of the United States and increased foreign assistance to Central America should be an integral part of any plan for comprehensive immigration reform.   

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