Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Subsidizing the gifted? 

I'm old enough to have learned my public finance from Musgrave and Musgrave's classic textbook, when there were few good alternatives (Buchanan and Flowers was the other one I read for my qualifying exams.) One of the things you learned from the text was tax equity principles; one of the principles, called the "benefits-received" principle, says that taxes should be paid according to the benefits received. I haven't taught public finance since the 1980s, so I don't know how much people lecture that any more.

I was reminded of this by a story Stephen links to about gifted students losing their special programs in Wisconsin. It's a trend (which of course is blamed on No Child Left Behind, which is also the leading cause of cancer), as 17 states do not provide money for gifted programs and 8 do not even have a state coordinator for gifted programming. And advocates are worried:
These programs provide the motivation and challenges that bright students need to do well in school, Robinson says.

Without them, gifted students will simply turn off from school, underperform and may even drop out. Research shows that up to one-quarter of the country's high school dropouts are gifted students, Robinson adds.

"Part of the problem is that people are going back to the comfortable myth that gifted kids are OK on their own," said Robin Schlei, the gifted and talented coordinator for the Mequon-Thiensville School District. "These kids are different from the norm, and they need help and support."

Pamela Clinkenbeard, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor and expert in gifted education, says gifted students are among the most at-risk for failing.

As a graduate student at Purdue University, she said, she worked with a seventh-grader who was years ahead of her classmates in math. School officials did not want to accelerate the girl, and she started skipping school and becoming depressed. At the urging of Purdue professors, she enrolled in a college calculus class and earned an A.


According to Clinkenbeard, Wisconsin was recognized as a national leader in gifted education in the 1970s. Its reputation started to decline as teachers retired and weren't replaced, she said.

"It's hard to measure what you lose by not challenging them," said Clinkenbeard, who calls investing in gifted education good for the economy, because it can slow down Wisconsin's much-publicized brain drain.

To an economist, two questions arise. First, is there a greater return on putting educational resources into gifted students? We have some evidence that it helps to track students (and doesn't harm disadvantaged learners), but that's not the real question. We want to know if "preventing brain drain" is helped by giving gifted students better education. After all, they can move.

Second, if not, would it make sense to start charging parents of gifted students more for the specialized education? If they are to receive greater benefit, the Musgrave tax equity story says make them pay more. But then you could argue the same for special ed students, too, right? And nobody wants to go down that road, methinks.