Education historian Diane Ravitch, in a recent Huffington Post piece, came out in support of school choice, but only choice in which you pay once for public schools, and a second time if you want or need something different than what those schools provide. In a familiar refrain, Ravitch argued that we pay through taxes for highways, police, firefighters, public beaches, and libraries even if we don’t use them, and schools should be no different. They are public goods.
Aside from the feel of circularity in Ravitch’s argument – these things are public goods, therefore you must pay taxes for them; because you pay taxes for them they are public goods – the crucial problem with Ravitch’s argument is the monumental difference between education and, say, building highways. Education is about shaping young people’s minds, something so intimately connected to values, identities, and basic freedom that it could never be tantamount to deciding whether to resurface roads or maintain a company to put out fires. And policing, most basically, is about ensuring one person doesn’t impose himself on another through force or fraud. That doesn’t come close to saying “we will require all people to pay for the inculcation of government-approved facts, ideas, and values in children.”
There is simply no meaningful equivalence between education and building roads or putting out fires. Except, perhaps, that when we force all people to support a single system of schools we ignite constant social conflagrations, fires that are often only put out when one side loses, or as Ravitch herself has documented, seemingly anything potentially flammable – but also often valuable – is removed.