Policy Analysis No. 620

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence

Would large-scale, free-market reforms improve educational outcomes for American children? That question cannot be answered by looking at domestic evidence alone. Though innumerable “school choice” programs have been implemented around the United States, none has created a truly free and competitive education marketplace. Existing programs are too small, too restriction laden, or both. To understand how genuine market forces affect school performance, we must cast a wider net, surveying education systems from all over the globe. The present paper undertakes such a review, assessing the results of 25 years of international research comparing market and government provision of education, and explaining why these international experiences are relevant to the United States.

In more than one hundred statistical comparisons covering eight different educational outcomes, the private sector outperforms the public sector in the overwhelming majority of cases. Moreover, that margin of superiority is greatest when the freest and most market-like private schools are compared to the least open and least competitive government systems (i.e., those resembling a typical U.S. public school system). Given the breadth, consistency, relevance, and decisiveness of this body of evidence, the implications for U.S. education policy are profound.

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Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Market Education: The Unknown History. He blogs at Cato-at-Liberty.org.