Educational Freedom: An Introduction

In an ideal world, every child would have access to the education that’s right for him or her. All parents would be able to choose from a diversity of high-quality options regardless of their means. Parents and educators would harmoniously spend their time and energy on providing the best possible education. Educators would be responsive to parents and employ sound pedagogical practices. Over time, innovations would expand the diversity and improve the quality of the educational options available. Our education system would produce literate and informed citizens, well prepared for adult life.

The pages of the Educational Freedom Wiki explore the most promising ways of moving toward that ideal.

Regrettably, America’s current education system is very far from it. The vast majority of students are assigned to their school based on the location of their parent’s home. Children from low-income families that cannot afford private schooling or homes in wealthier districts are trapped in underperforming schools. Given their captive audiences, these schools are more responsive to bureaucrats and special interests than to students and their parents.

Our education system’s troubles are not confined to low-income districts — America’s students as a whole lag behind many other industrialized nations on international tests. Government expenditures on K-12 education have more than doubled over the last 40 years (adjusted for inflation), and yet U.S. students’ academic performance at the end of high school is flat. Top-down regulations intended to improve quality instead stifle diversity and innovation. And rather than foster harmony, too often government schools force citizens into social conflict.

image

What Is Educational Freedom?

To improve on these results, we should examine what sorts of education systems have consistently produced the best results across centuries and continents. From ancient times until the present, in nations both wealthy and developing, the most market-like education systems have been the most efficient, produced the highest academic achievement, created the least social conflict, and been the most responsive to the evolving needs of parents and students.

What America needs is more educational freedom. Parents must be free to choose the education that’s best for their kids, no matter where they live or how much they earn. Educators must be free to determine their own curricula and methods and free to set their own prices and compensation. Schools must be free to innovate and compete to attract and retain students. And they must be both free to profit from their successes and compelled to suffer losses for their failures, because the profit-and-loss system spurs innovation, efficiency, and the dissemination of best practices. Likewise, educators must be free to compete in the labor market for positions that give them the greatest professional freedom and compensation.

Historically, the only way parents have retained control over their children’s education in the long run has been for them to assume, as much as possible, the direct financial responsibility for it. Fortunately, the research suggests that even modest parental co-payments significantly increase the efficiency of schools and their responsiveness to parents’ demands.

These components of educational freedom are interdependent. For example, parental choice is only meaningful if schools have the freedom and autonomy to differentiate themselves. Policymakers who might consider regulating or constraining one of these factors — educational choice and financial responsibility for parents; freedom, competition, and the profit/loss system for schools — must consider the impact that such a policy would have on the other factors and the system in general.

For more on this topic, see our pages on Parental Choice and Responsibility and School Freedom and Competition.

The Benefits of Educational Freedom

Social Harmony

Parents and citizens at large hold a legitimate diversity of views regarding what schools should teach and how they should teach it. But when government provides the schooling, questions of curriculum, pedagogy, morality, and sexuality are decided through the zero-sum political system. Since the system creates winners and losers, government schooling too often pits citizens against each other.

By contrast, educational freedom fosters social harmony. When parents can select the school their child attends, there is no need to fight with neighbors who hold different beliefs and educational preferences. Instead, parents can choose schools that comport with their values and preferences.

For more on this topic, see our page on Government Schools, Democracy, and Social Conflict.

Improved Equity

Milton Friedman once observed: “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” Friedman’s insight is especially true in education policy.

Ostensibly, government schooling was intended to provide equal access to a quality education for all students, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay. In practice, government schooling is highly unequal. Districts where wealthier people live tend to have better schools than lower-income districts. Importantly, this is true even when the districts in question have similar levels of per-pupil spending. According to the federal Department of Education’s Condition of Education 2010, Indicator 36-1 (p. 107), districts with the poorest students are the highest spending. Public schools serving these students are not underperforming because they are underfunded, they are underperforming despite the fact that they are, on average, the best-funded districts in the nation. Wealthier families can afford to live in districts with better district schools or send their children to private schools. Poorer families find it much more difficult to escape their assigned district school.

Educational freedom breaks the link between education and housing. Educational choice programs — such as scholarship tax credits or vouchers — empower families with multiple options. While no policy can ensure complete equality, educational choice ensures greater equity for low-income families by offering greater opportunity.

Greater Diversity, Innovation, and Quality

Educational freedom is not only about escaping failing schools. Even a generally high-performing school might not be the right match for every child. Indeed, we should not expect any one school to be the best fit for all the children who happen to live nearby.

Educational freedom allows parents to select the school that best meets their own children’s particular needs. In competitive markets, education providers respond to those needs by offering a variety of educational approaches and content. Those that provide a higher quality education attract more parents, thereby creating an incentive for high-quality providers to expand their operations and for others to imitate them. Conversely, schools that consistently fail to meet families’ expectations lose their patronage and are driven out of business.

Markets also provide a more fertile environment for innovation. One-size-fits-all government mandates induce conformity and punish educators who stray too far from the top-down directives. By contrast, a free market gives educators the space to innovate. Successful innovations would be expanded and replicated while unsuccessful innovations would be abandoned.

For more on this topic, see our page on Educational Choice and Accountability.

Getting Educational Freedom Right

In order to ensure universal access to the educational marketplace, financial assistance must be available to low-income families. Policies like school vouchers and education tax credits are intended to ensure that access.

The relative merits of these policies are discussed here: The Way Forward — Education Tax Credits or Vouchers?

The Educational Freedom Wiki is intended as an introduction to the concept of and case for educational freedom. In the pages linked below, readers will find brief overviews of the central issues in education policy, the problems plaguing our current system of state-run schooling, the conditions necessary for educational freedom, and steps to move closer to that ideal.

For those interested in a more in-depth treatment of these topics, each page concludes with a list of links to related books, studies, white papers, essays, and blog posts. Readers who desire a more comprehensive introduction to the idea of educational freedom may find one here: “The Public School Monopoly: America’s Berlin Wall.”

Educational Freedom Wiki Topics: