March 13, 2008 2:12PM

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Last week I observed that existing hobbled "school choice" programs have yet to transform American education because they fall far short of free markets. NRO's Carol Iannone responds:

Well, of course! And necessarily so.... public education could never be completely open to a fully free market.... [And even if it were,] the results would not be pretty, because the market cannot ensure quality.

She endeavors to back up these assertions with an analogy to cable television (which apparently includes programming she finds lacking in culture). But, Ms. Iannone, it ain't necessarily so, and we needn't resort to analogy to find that out. Free education markets actually exist today, and have existed at various times and places throughout history, all the way back to the classical Athenians (whose cultural contributions were so enduring that they can still be found on cable television, 2,500 years later).

Rather than imagining what we think a free education marketplace might look like; rather than dreaming about how wonderful an idealized set of government standards could be; I suggest that we actually compare real education markets to real government-run and intrusively regulated schools. That is what I have spent the past decade-and-a-half doing. Based on my own and others' findings, I recommend unfettered markets, coupled with financial assistance to ensure universal access, as the best way of fulfilling the ideals of public education. There are many possible ways of getting there, from the continued gradual expansion of certain existing programs to the passage of stronger ones such as Cato's own Public Education Tax Credit.

I recently summarized and linked to the huge preponderance of econometric research favoring market over monopoly schooling, so let me just add a further detail here: the evidence does not support the view that government-mandated standards improve upon the operation of true free education markets. On the contrary, it shows that government licensing of teachers has little effect other than to eliminate from the teaching pool many of the most capable applicants and to drive up wages. And in those countries where real market schools can be compared to government schools, the curricula demanded by parents in the education marketplace are generally more in tune with the labor market, and more effectively and efficiently taught, than the curricula handed down by government appointed experts. This echoes the historical pattern I documented in my book Market Education: The Unknown History.

I invite government standards advocates, who claim that support for market education is based on "faith," to actually look at the research and then to look at themselves in the mirror. Which of us has the better empirical case?