Commentary

Public School Daze

By David F. Salisbury
This article appeared in the Washington Times, September 7, 2005.
As summer’s end nears, students head back to school. Despite years of effort to improve American education, many of these students’ schools will not provide them the basic skills needed to enter college or succeed in a career.

Some states’ public schools graduate as few as 55 percent of students. U.S. test scores versus other countries’ decline the longer students are in school. Teachers complain of overwhelming bureaucracy and government mandates.

Public school expenditures per student continue rising, even though higher expenditures don’t produce better student performance. Over the last 30 years, per pupil expenditures have tripled in real dollars, yet scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remain nearly flat.

Clearly, our public school problems are not related to lack of money. But because the government has a near monopoly on education, and taxpayer support and student attendance are mandatory, the public school system is insulated from market forces and competition that might produce improvements.

Even the head of one of the largest teachers’ unions, Albert Shanker, came to grips with the problems facing public education before his death in 1997.

Mr. Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, once noted: “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

But some might argue, “Isn’t education too important to be left to the whims of the private market and wouldn’t poor children be left without schools to attend?”

Because of its ability to respond to changing consumer preferences, to innovate and to offer the best prices, the private sector does better at providing critical goods and services. Although it may be hard for us to imagine a world in which schools were mostly private, a private, market-based system could provide education services.

Economic history shows the private sector — not government — is best able to provide critical services and products. Food and clothing, for instance, would be scarcer and of poorer quality and variety if these essential goods were provided only by government. In other countries, attempts to put the production and distribution of goods and services under government control have produced only mass starvation and shortages.

Poor families have better access to important items like food and clothing under our privately run market system than they would if these items were provided by government. The same would be true of schools under a system of private enterprise.

Some might wonder why we give government a near monopoly over education when the courts have viewed monopolies in other aspects of our economy as anathema to the American free enterprise system. Over recent decades, similar monopolies have been dismantled by government, including the monopoly over package delivery by the U.S. Postal Service and the monopoly over telephone service by Bell Telephone. Today, consumers have the choice of UPS, FedEx, and other couriers and enjoy cheap long-distance telephone service thanks to competition among providers.

Perhaps it’s time to do what we did with the U.S. Post Office and Ma Bell and end the government monopoly control over education. School choice through vouchers or tuition tax credits is one way to do this. There is no good reason to doubt we would get higher quality, more variety, and greater efficiency from a market-based education system.

Poor inner-city children would have better access to good schools, and teachers would be free to specialize and custom-tailor learning programs. Smaller specialized schools could meet the needs of students with distinctive interests and abilities.

A generation from now, when families are hopefully able to choose among a variety of specialized schooling options for their children, people may wonder why a government monopoly on education was ever viewed as acceptable. To them, a private market-based system of education will seem the norm.

David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.