As well as using the “something-for-nothing” model, why not add a “you gave, we give” merit test as the basis for government largesse?

Essential workers, veterans and the US flag saluting each other

As Congress considers the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, among the “something-for-nothing” laundry lists are two items that impact education: pre-K and community college. They are particularly relevant to Nevadans, where schools are ranked at or near rock bottom among K-12 U.S. education systems.

Pre-K is a good idea. Studies seem to indicate that the benefits wear off by the time students hit Third Grade. I would argue they are life-long: once a child’s mind is opened up, it stays open. Not everyone is an Einstein, but children will always be better off than if they hadn’t had the benefit of early learning. Moreover, at that age, young peoples’ minds are tabula rosa—largely unwritten pages in a lifelong book. Now, 3 yr. and 4 yr. old’s are a little young for national service, but that’s where society steps in. As a community, we can assist with writing the first few chapters of their education.

Community College is an entirely different story. By then, our kids are old enough to vote. They’ve been through school for (at least) 13 years. Many will want to go onto college, while many others won’t or shouldn’t: not every individual needs a college education to be a productive citizen. Bernie Sander’s fantasy to send checks to everyone who raises their hands when asked, “do you want to go to college for free?” begs the question. While community college may work for some, it also promises to be a two-year baby-sitting gig for those who should or want to follow a different path.

As well as using “needs-based” criteria, something-for-something programs could be “merit-based.”

The operative model could well be the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, where vets get up to 36 months of education benefits (including vocational training) paying for tuition and fees, monthly housing (for those who qualify), and a stipend for books and supplies. The G.I. Bill has been a tremendous success. (I used it to partially cover graduate school.)

OR take social security: older Americans get a check after retirement for having contributed to the program during their working years.

Why can’t we use a similar model for subsidizing community college? Instead of using the “something-for-nothing” model, why not try a “you gave, we give” test? Government programs can certainly be “means-tested,” but something-for-something programs would also reflect “merit-based” considerations. The basic premise is that these Treasury checks are for something-you-gave not something-you-don’t have. And, even Bernie Sanders can’t complain: a means test can always be added, but recipients would also be required to contribute to the common good.

Finally, asking for something from those who receive government money provides a start for taking a long, hard look at a $31 trillion national debt that routinely doles out something-for-nothing to all too many Americans.

Dan Schwartz served as Nevada State Treasurer (2015-2019) and is currently a candidate for LT Governor in 2022.