The Old School Reformer's Case for Privatizing Education
How the school choice movement can liberate childhood
Matt Yglesias has published a highly informative series of essays on the recent history of education reform (Part I here). You should read all four pieces, but the basic idea is that around the time of the first Obama administration, there was something of a bipartisan consensus in favor of shaking up the status quo, through doing things like introducing competition in education via the use of charter schools, weakening the power of teachers unions, and using metrics to measure student outcomes. Today, this centrist position is nowhere to be found. The left basically just wants to throw money at the schools, not ask too many questions about outcomes, and give the teachers unions what they want. The conservative shift has been towards privatization, which involves taking money out of public education all together and letting parents figure out what to do.
As a result, we’re seeing a great divergence at the state level. Conservatives have made real strides towards privatization just over the last year. Arizona was the first state to create universal Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in 2022. Since then, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah, and Florida have followed. Similar programs have passed at least one house of the state legislature in Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. There’s currently a standoff in Oklahoma between the governor and the state senate over this issue. These programs simply give parents money, usually around $7,000-$8,000 a year for each child they take out of public schools. Families can spend these funds on private school tuition, homeschooling textbooks, or basically whatever else they want as long as it’s education related. This takes money away from public schools, which get state and federal funding based on how many students they are responsible for teaching.
Yglesias mourns the loss of the old consensus. He recognizes the shortcomings of public education as it currently exists, but wants to go back to the reasonable reforms that were being tried out during the Obama administration. In contrast, this essay argues that arguments made for supporting moderate reforms over privatization are weak. This isn’t that hard of a case to make to conservatives, who believe in markets and hate public education already. Yet I would go a step further, and argue that working towards privatization makes sense from a moderate and center-left perspective as well, especially for the kinds of people who still pine for Obama-era reforms and think they weren’t tried hard enough. If you believe in private enterprise at all — if you think, for example, things like restaurants and office supply stores are better left to the market — the arguments for keeping education outside of government control are stronger than in most other areas of life.
To put it another way, there are things that practically everyone believes should be left to the market. There are others, like national defense or preventing air pollution, where everyone believes government has a large regulatory role to play. Most moderates and liberals believe education should be in the latter group, but I think they are mistaken, even from the perspective of their own priors and values. Socialists and communists who believe an unusually high number of things should be government run are in a different category, so the case made here will speak much less directly to them.
Why Does Government Do Stuff?
Before getting into the main argument, it’s useful to step back and ask why government does things in the first place. Let’s start with some widely accepted principles. Going off of a highly regarded legal textbook called Administrative Law and Regulatory Policy, there are four things economists agree that you should use government for. When I taught introductory courses in political science at UCLA, we gave similar reasons, showing that I’m not picking these justifications at random, as they cross disciplinary boundaries and are often used as a starting point for subsequent discussion.
The need to correct for externalities
Collective action problems
The need to compensate for inadequate information
To control monopoly power
Education does not clearly fall into any of these categories. The term “externalities” usually refers to things like putting pollution in the air or littering. But, assuming that the interests of children and parents are aligned for the most basic Darwinian reasons, families themselves suffer the consequences of poor educational outcomes. One could say that not letting children learn as well as possible might cause societal harms, but that is far from certain, especially if you believe education is mostly signalling and therefore negative sum. This gets at the point that we usually only call direct harms externalities, not whatever could plausibly hurt others. To refer to anything bad that might happen as a negative externality expands the concept to cover practically everything.
There is also no collective action problem that government controlled education solves. National defense is the canonical example from this category. It has to be run by the government, because one can’t have a subscriber-based military that only defends the life and property of paying citizens. Shooting down a missile protects everyone. In contrast, education is like most other goods and services, in that you can provide or withhold it based on whether individuals are able and willing to pay. In fact, as I will argue below, government control of and support for education not only does not solve a collective action problem, it actively creates one, or at the very least exacerbates it.
From what I’ve read, opponents of privatized education rely most strongly on (3). Usually, we think of inadequate information as pertaining to areas like medicine. How are you to know whether it’s reasonable to believe that a drug will lower your statistical risk of dying over the next decade? There’s no way for people to figure such things out themselves, so we have the FDA. Libertarians might disagree with this and think the FDA does more harm than good and the free market might find its own ways to do the same job better, but that’s at least the theoretical argument that interventionists make.
In the education context, this translates into arguing that parents aren’t in the best position to know what’s good for their kids. I’ll set that argument aside for now and address it below.
We can dismiss (4), since education is highly decentralized and there are unlikely to ever be private monopoly actors in this space. Moreover, education isn’t the kind of industry in which monopolization is likely. Except, of course, when you have government schools, but here we’re trying to find a case for public education as it currently exists, not against it.
Another common justification for government intervention in the market is to redistribute wealth. Yet even if one believes that this is an appropriate role for government to play, it does not argue for public education. The universal ESA programs, after all, redistribute taxpayer money to parents. If your problem with this is that they give rich and poor alike the same amount of money, then the answer is to simply adjust the numbers, not oppose markets in education altogether. Just like how if you think the poor don’t have enough food, you simply give them money, or vouchers, to buy it in the marketplace instead of creating government-run grocery stores.
We therefore see that schooling clearly does not fit into 3 of the 4 standard justifications for government intervention in the market. Redistribution, a popular fifth justification, if accepted would simply call for cash transfers or a more progressive voucher system. That leaves the argument that public education is necessary to solve an information problem. This would require government to have some special informational advantage over parents in making decisions about how children spend their time.
Schooling is a Massive Infringement on Liberty
With that background about whether standard arguments for government regulation or control apply to education, we can talk a bit more about what makes education different from other areas of life.
The first thing to point out about public education is that it involves an extreme restriction of liberty beyond anything we usually accept. How common is it for government to force you to be in a certain place at a certain time? What I call “time-place” mandates are rare. Sometimes you have to go to the DMV, but even then you spend a short amount of time there, and can generally choose when to go. Sometimes people have to respond to subpoenas or jury duty, but those are uncommon events in most people’s lives. Government says to do your taxes, though you only have a deadline and can fill out the paperwork whenever and under whatever conditions you want.
The only substantial populations of individuals who have their lives structured according to time-place mandates in a free society like ours are prisoners, members of the military, and children. The mandates for children have gotten less strict over the years now that all states allow homeschooling, but opponents of school choice for all practical purposes want to do what they can to shape the incentive structures of parents so that they all use public schools (liberal reformers tend to like vouchers that can be used at charter schools, but not ESAs, which give parents complete control). Of course, children don’t have the freedom of adults, and so others are by default in control of how they spend most of their time. But it’s usually parents, not the government, that we trust in this role. Given the unusual degree to which public education infringes on individual liberty and family autonomy, the burden of proof has to be on those in favor of maintaining such an extreme institution.
This brings us back to the point of proponents of public education having to think that government is really a lot better than parents at deciding how children should spend their time. Is there a good reason to believe this is the case? Yglesias points to data showing that the evidence on whether school voucher programs achieve better educational outcomes is mixed. But there’s a lot more to childhood than maximizing test scores. In a free market system, parents would likely base their decision of where to send a child on a countless number of other factors: cost, safety, the pleasantness of the experience, the values that a school teaches, distance from home, which hours a school operates, extracurricular activities, etc. Parents who take their children out of public schools often cite a variety of reasons beyond likely impact on educational outcomes as measured by tests.
The more complicated and multi-faceted a decision is, and the more state control involves an infringement on individual liberty, the less we trust government to make it and the more we trust private parties. An American child spends almost 9,000 hours in educational establishments before graduating junior high. That’s more than what an individual would spend working at a full-time job for over four years. In the process, the government tells children what to read, how much and when to exercise, how often to go to the bathroom. This needs to be kept in mind when analyzing arguments and data.
Reformers and the Obsession with Test Scores
The obsession with test scores in this debate is a classic example of a phenomenon where governments try to optimize based on what they can, or decide to, measure. This is a problem with central planning more generally. Governments can track test scores — though as we’ve seen, teachers unions are hostile even to that — but are much less likely to have insight into mental health, how well-adjusted kids end up as adults, social development, or the simple question of how much they are enjoying life. Even when the government does collect pieces of such data, they tend not to factor into education policy to the same extent that test results do. The liberal school reformers are perhaps better than standard liberals because they want to at least measure something, and create some degree of accountability. But they still simply focus on one variable, whereas parents generally have the incentive and the motivation to consider all aspects of a child’s well-being and development.
In the absence of randomized control trials in which some parents have school choice and others don’t, and which measure a wide variety of outcomes, including some that won’t manifest for decades, it’s practically impossible to use empirical research to say whether universal school choice is better than the standard American education system. For this reason, priors have a huge role to play in this debate. This is difficult for technocratically-inclined liberals to come to terms with, since there seems to be no greater desire in their hearts than to be able to say that they “followed the data.” This is unfortunately true even when we don’t have the relevant data, and even when values have a large role to play in how it would be interpreted if we did.
Reformers generally reject the signalling model of education, believing that having higher test scores is itself a good thing. If one accepts this, it only leads to the next hurdle that defenders of the existence of public education have to overcome, which is demonstrating that in this one particular area of life, central planning is better than markets. People who keep wanting to introduce market reforms into education hesitate to just come out and endorse markets in education.
At some level, they seem to think that their preferred combination of government control along with metrics and choice is the best way to maximize test scores, and they may or may not be right. But as noted above, test scores are only one of many variables that go into what makes a good school. Critics of the school reform movement like Freddie deBoer rightly point out that IQ, at least when you get to adulthood, is mostly under genetic control, and there’s more to life than being book smart. Americans aren’t Koreans, who will sacrifice everything else in life, including childhood itself, so their kids can do as well as possible on standardized tests. One of the bright ideas of school reformers was shorter summer vacations, which I’m sure would’ve probably gotten test scores up. That doesn’t mean it would’ve been a desirable policy.
Inadequate Information and Paternalism
It is indeed possible that under a system of universal ESAs, some parents would make terrible mistakes with regards to the education of their children, just like how parents make mistakes in many other areas of life. Nonetheless, in addition to the fact that parents know the child better than a school ever can, actual government performance in this area gives us many reasons not to trust it with such power.
Indeed, there is little evidence that the field of education relies on a rigorous scientific literature to decide how and what to teach children. To the extent that it has made scientific advancements, what we have found has rarely been utilized. Apparently, we know that the best way to teach children reading is to have them sound out words, but this has been controversial among educators, seemingly for no good reason.
Ron Unz has talked about his experience trying to get rid of bilingual education as the default for certain kids in California, which basically ghettoized Hispanic children and prevented many of them from becoming fully fluent in English. He found that parents understood that of course their children growing up in the United States should learn English as much and as soon as possible, but resistance to this idea came from the education establishment. The point here is that destructive left-wing ideology in schools and programs meant to serve the interests of government employees over kids are not new; they’ve been a pathology of public education in this country for decades.
Data shows that GRE test takers planning to study education have some of the lowest scores of people in any field. Even liberals have noticed that education schools have been taken over by some of the craziest ideologues in academia, a sure sign of a field lacking academic rigor.
Yglesias, in making his case against privatization, has a heading titled “You need to care about normal people too.” He writes:
And if the problem with privatizing schools is you end up with too much selection and cream-skimming, a big problem with the current fads in left-wing thinking about education is they totally ignore the needs and sentiments of normal people. Denver had been an education reform city for a long time, but the union-aligned progressive faction took control of the school board and, post-Floyd, implemented a bunch of changes to school discipline that were supposed to serve equity needs. They took police officers out of schools, which left civilian administrators in charge of doing a daily “pat down” of a student with a very troubled record, right up until the point where he shot two of them. You had the school board saying that attempted murder isn’t a good reason to suspend someone from school as long as the shooting happened off school grounds. And more broadly, you had principals saying that they are being pushed to accommodate egregious discipline cases in ways that compromise school safety.
I don’t know that I have the full answer to exactly where the safety/inclusion line needs to be drawn, but the general point here is that while the strength of public schools as a concept is to serve high-need families, for the concept to work, you need to make public schools that people want to attend.
Of course, no one has to tell private businesses “you need to care about normal people,” because they have to compete for customers and don’t get to just force people to use their product because they happen to live within a certain zip code. Many people have written about elite private schools in some cases being more woke than public schools, but this appears to be a luxury good they can afford, since the price alone keeps out the tough discipline cases.
It Wasn’t an Accident Reform Failed
All of this reveals a flaw in the thinking of reformers. They often point out how bad public education is. The unions are against merit pay or any form of accountability. Public schools are hostile to tracking students and sometimes even disciplining them due to “equity” concerns. During covid, public schools were more hysterical in their reaction to the pandemic than just about any other major institution, implementing years of shutdowns and mask mandates. Meanwhile, private schools were generally better on this score.
Until about a decade ago, there were reformers across the political spectrum who thought something had to change. George W. Bush was among their ranks, as were Barack Obama and Bill Gates. In 2001, Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress. Nonetheless, reformers eventually got crushed by defenders of the status quo, so that as of the early 2020s schools seem more ideological and less interested in student outcomes than ever before.
I don’t think this was an accident. Rather, it’s a problem inherent in trying to introduce market reforms in a central planning system. The reformers try to implement their ideas and move on, but vested interests had more at stake, and eventually mobilized and won. Bill Gates and Barack Obama had a lot else going on in life when they tried to make education better, while the permanent bureaucrats and the teachers unions saw the entire reason for their existence threatened. It’s taken Republicans, who see these people as the enemy, to make political gains against them. Moreover, a lot of local communities and parents pushed back on the overwhelming focus on testing created by NCLB. As it turns out, Washington, DC wasn’t very good at deciding how to balance measurable academic improvement against everything else families want in a school.
If education reform couldn’t succeed in its heyday between around 2000-2012, it’s difficult to see how there is hope for it ever succeeding. I remember the buzz surrounding the documentary Waiting for “Superman” (2010). The film was praised to the hilt in conservative media, while some of the students it featured ended up visiting the White House and meeting President Obama. Try to imagine a movie about any public policy issue that today would be promoted by Republicans and Democrats alike, much less one about education.
Obama-era liberals sought to improve education by introducing market forces. But they failed, the education establishment has gotten worse, and it’s time to give markets themselves a try. Yesterday’s liberal reformers should join conservatives in moving towards privatization, while also handling any concerns they have about the end result by calling for the direct redistribution of wealth.
A World Without Government Schools
I think most people, when they hear about the education debate, imagine that the issue doesn’t really matter that much. Even if you gave parents money and let them send their children to whatever institutions they wanted, they would end up in private schools that don’t look all that different from government schools we have now.
To me, the true promise of the school choice movement isn’t that it might simply save a bit of money or avoid the worst excesses of public education. Rather, it presents an opportunity to rethink childhood. Ultimately, this can work against many of the pathologies that have emerged in American society over the last several decades, including delayed adulthood, high real estate costs, negative-sum credentialism that robs young people of their best years, and culture wars that are exacerbated by the fact that the children of people with radically different values are forced into the same institutions.
On what basis did we as a society decide that the ideal way to spend a childhood was to attend government institutions 5 days a week, 7 hours a day, 9 months a year, for 12 years? That most of that time should be spent sitting at a desk, with say one hour for lunch and one for recess?
My hope is that states with universal ESAs will see radical experimentation. Maybe some parents would send their kids to a traditional school for six months of the year, and then have them apprenticing or interning in the workforce the rest of the time. Imagine having a few months experience working at a law firm during eighth grade, grabbing coffee for corporate executives in ninth grade, following around a pipe fitter in tenth grade, and helping around a gym in eleventh grade. Some dads might give their sons an entire year to work on self-confidence and meeting and attracting women. Republicans have recently been loosening child labor laws, which the media has reacted to with horror. But earning money and gaining real-world experience are actually good things (I realize that I’m now probably preaching to conservatives in this part, as it’ll probably take another post to convince liberals and centrists that child labor is good, so if this hurts my argument with you forget I said it).
For adults, we understand the folly of imposing a one-size-fits-all approach to how individuals live their lives. Some are workaholics, others prioritize leisure. Some have intellectual pursuits, while others like sitting in front of the TV. We generally leave people alone, even if they might make terrible decisions.
Childhood should be similar, with parents taking input from children on what it should look like and serving as the ultimate decision-makers. Some kids will attend institutions that look something like public schools. Others will simply realize that they don’t have the aptitude for or interest in studying, and will go directly into the workforce at a young age. In some cases, their parents will encourage or force them to save much of the money they make, and such kids will end up as pretty well-off adults due to the miracle of compound interest. They’ll get married and have their own children sooner. Some childhoods will combine work and academic pursuits, as kids find out what they enjoy and what they’re good at. The truly academically gifted will not be held back by the dumb kids, while those not so academically inclined won’t be forced to waste years in institutions they get nothing out of, and instead be able to simply enter the workforce early and maximize their lifetime earnings.
I think critics of privatization aren’t being imaginative enough. They accept the premise that childhood should mostly be about sitting at a desk, with one’s nose in a book or holding a pencil. Yglesias complains that ESAs don’t give enough money to cover tuition at most institutions, so they in effect just operate as a scheme to redistribute money to parents who are already homeschooling or sending their kids to private schools. This is bad reasoning, not only because it ignores marginal cases — that is, parents who would check out of public schools if it was slightly more affordable to do so — but because it sees public schools or arrangements that look like public schools as the only options for humanity. What we need is more radical experimentation in how to raise children, and a system with enough flexibility to take into account the reality of human variation.
We Have Too Much Education
Thus far I’ve focused mostly on the benefits to individual children that can result from privatizing education. But I think the societal impacts would be at least as important. Above, I argued that even if the signalling model of education is false, and that higher scores are actually good for society, making kids smarter would still have to be traded off against other things people want. Yet in my view, education is mostly just signalling, and so granting that getting better scores is desirable concedes too much to the other side. It’s a rat race, in which the benefit of higher performance is comparative — society doesn’t get better or worse off if everyone’s academic achievement goes up or down, since we don’t know how to actually make people smarter.
If public education solved a collective action problem, there would be a case for it. In reality, it actively subsidizes one. That’s the argument Bryan Caplan convincingly makes in The Case Against Education. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard him note that while it is easy to convince people of the signalling theory of education, when he tells them that it implies we should actually spend less money on schooling, people recoil. But that policy idea naturally follows from Caplan’s argument.
This seems to be a common issue in this debate. Recently, Scott Alexander reviewed a book that echoed Peter Thiel in arguing we have too much education. He closed by expressing exasperation at the fact that people have been making these arguments forever and nothing changes.
The Thiel Fellowship broke out of this trap by providing a legible signal that you were in the second category, and by shunting people into the self-made entrepreneur track where (after your first few VC rounds) success doesn’t hinge upon how many people you can impress with your credentials. But how does it start a virtuous cycle where more and more people can escape, at scale? If you’re a future budget analyst or middle manager who wants to drop out of college without it sending the wrong signal, what do you do?
Until Gibson has an answer for this, all his anti-education rhetoric feels like potshots. Some of those potshots will land, the ogre will howl in pain, and it will be very satisfying. But in the end it’s still an ogre, it’s still stronger than you, and you still owe it $30,000 for every year you or your children are between ages 18-22 - which it will take and distribute among all of the usual types of people who populate extractive institutions and extract from them in turn. The Paper Belt - Gibson’s term for these extractors - is at best barely smoldering.
Now Scott doesn’t specialize in public policy, so it was easy for him to miss the fact that there are people who have ideas on how to fix this, and they’re out there fighting for them in the political arena. With regards to the question of whether to have a government-subsidized rat race, there is generally one political party that wants to double down on current practices, and another that wants to do something different. This goes beyond the school choice issue. Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, for example, pours fuel on the fire, and Republicans have tried to stop it in court and through congressional negotiations.
I’m of the belief that we don’t only need less college, but less primary and secondary education too. The school choice debate isn’t directly about how much money goes into education, as it appears to mostly just move resources around. This is probably necessary for public choice reasons. You can’t go after public education without also creating a new handout. Nonetheless, left-wing activists are correct that school choice is a major threat to the current system. A world where government just gives parents money is superior to one where it micromanages childhood.
In effect, it doesn’t appear there is going to be much oversight into how parents use ESAs. Eventually, they will hopefully lead to less schooling overall. Universal ESAs get us closer to a world where we simply subsidize having kids, and let parents decide what to spend their money on as long as they classify whatever they pay for as “educational” expenses. It’ll be interesting to see how many parents take advantage of them in states that have adopted this system, but even if most people stick with the status quo due to inertia, getting a small percentage of kids out of institutions that make them miserable will be a huge policy victory. It could take a generation or more to realize the full promise of universal ESAs, and that may be fine, as slowly bleeding public education might be politically easier than destroying it overnight, which could happen if too many parents pulled their children out too quickly.
In addition to facilitating a rat race, another way in which public education deforms society is through the real estate market. Whether you’re a conservative who stresses the importance of individual liberty, or a liberal who would like to see more equity, I don’t think anyone believes that a system based on zip codes in which you pay for better schools indirectly through buying a more expensive house is the ideal social arrangement. This is something that reformers on the left and right have always understood, hence their support for school choice, that is, in the form of charter schools, decoupling location from education.
For those who reject the signalling model of education, it is worth noting that test scores still haven’t come anywhere close to bouncing back to pre-covid levels. This doesn’t matter that much to me, since accepting the signalling model implies that a decline isn’t something to worry about. But if you disagree, then the covid shutdowns must be seen as a major blow against public education. One can even consider private schools to be worse at educating kids on average, but still have faith that they won’t go crazy in response to unforeseen events and wipe out any previous gains made.
Answering Right-Wing and Left-Wing Objections
One thing opponents of privatization worry about is that the poorest and most hopeless students will be left behind in any school choice system. While I think there’s no reason to think most parents won’t make adequate enough decisions, there are perhaps some families who could use a kind of targeted paternalism. Usually, however, when government is being paternalistic, we try to use persuasion and incentives rather than mandates to change behavior. Taking children from their parents and placing them with the government for most of the day should be a last resort, not the default way society works. Similarly, if there are some kids with so many problems that no private institution will bother putting up with them, the answer is to send them to specialized facilities, just as we do with the most disruptive and dangerous adults.
Some liberals worry about segregation, or an adverse selection problem, where all the competent parents take their kids out of public schools, leaving the government to handle the problem cases. Sometimes they point to data showing the importance of peer effects, and want to force different kinds of students together in order to make kids from the worst backgrounds better off. The problem is that this isn’t the system we have now. Rich and middle-class parents really really don’t want their kids going to school with children from poor and broken families. If you create a system where public education is tied to zip code, history has made clear that better off parents will either not have kids, send their kids to private schools, or pay whatever it takes to move to a different location with “better schools.”
School busing was a way to get around this. Government in effect said to parents, “no matter how far you go, we will find your children and drag them to where you don’t want them to be,” or, alternatively, “you left the city? It’s ok, we’ll bring it to you.” This was wildly unpopular, and was eventually defeated through the political process. As it should have been. So even if you believe in the idea of forcibly mixing students of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds together for the sake of equity, this is not how things work out in practice. Those concerned about helping the poor should find better ways than asking parents to sacrifice the well-being and safety of their children for the cause.
Interestingly, I’ve seen almost the mirror image of this defense of public schools on the right. Conservative politicians are mostly for moving towards a more market-based education system, but I’ve noticed some right-wingers on Twitter worry that more choice in education may destroy good private schools, either by letting undesirable students attend them or government doing more to force them to abide by civil rights law. This amounts to the same thing, since it’s civil rights law that is the main force government uses to lower disciplinary, academic, and behavioral standards. While liberals like public schools because they see them as better from an equity perspective, some conservatives who are against government social engineering have found themselves arguing that it is actually school choice that is the pro-equity position.
I think the conservative argument reflects a misunderstanding of how these things work in practice. Regarding ESA programs, it is state, not federal, money that is following students around. It is therefore unlikely that Republican states that are in the process of privatizing education will also be prone to expand civil rights law to tell private institutions what to do.
And anyway, the whole point here is that if a private school is destroyed, there is a way out. Right now public schools go bad already. Under the current system, demographics of areas change, and a reliance on public schools means that when it does happen you have no choice but to buy a new house, as opposed to a privatized system, where you can just change the school. No matter what happens, private schools will still always be able to discriminate based on price, and since ESA programs only provide a limited amount of money, that is going to be enough to exclude the worst students.
Fundamentally, however, this is mostly a theoretical concern, because it’s a mistake to imagine the civil rights regime as a superefficient behemoth that can direct its attention wherever it so desires at the drop of a hat. The way it usually works is that government bureaucrats are most effective when they form alliances with bureaucracies within institutions in order to push things like getting rid of school discipline and trans in girls sports. This is obviously much easier to do when the institution is itself also government-run, and therefore tending to be staffed by ideologues and not responsive to market pressures. R. Shep Melnick’s The Transformation of Title IX serves as a very good explainer about how this works in practice. You’ll notice that one of the main arguments the opponents of privatized education make is that it leads to slack in the enforcement of civil rights law, and they’re correct on this point.
In the long run, the more decentralized education is, the less government will be able to control it. Think about how difficult it is to regulate the homeschooling environment of a single family, and a world of small learning pods would not be much subject to government control either. To have the state exercising power even in theory requires institutions that exist on a large scale. That’s not the world of private education we have now, and it certainly wouldn’t be the world we would find ourselves in if and when many more families opt out of the public education system.
Stop Worshipping the Status Quo
I’m a libertarian, but here I’ve argued that you don’t need to be a libertarian to be against public education. If you make the basic default assumption that markets are better than central planning in most industries and areas of life, you should apply that lesson here as well. It’s difficult for me to imagine why one would believe that the information problem and a lack of incentives would prevent government from being able to wisely decide how much concrete or steel to produce and how to distribute it, but then trust the state to have a role in scheduling half of the waking hours of a substantial portion of the population for five days a week.
I’m convinced the main reason we accept public education is the status quo bias. If someone proposed that any other population be placed in government buildings at set times organized by neighborhood and told what to do and think, people would recognize this as totalitarian. If told this was for their own good, citizens would demand extremely strong evidence for this claim and still likely oppose the program even if they found any evidence provided convincing.
The status quo bias is one of the most powerful forces in politics. People talk about the public generally supporting higher government spending, and that’s true, but it’s much easier to defend existing programs like Social Security and Medicare than it is to give people more handouts, like UBI, or Obamacare when it was new. In ballot initiatives, “no” tends to start out with an advantage, and in framing a question you always want to present your side as the one maintaining the current system or policy.
One might argue that a status quo bias is rational for Burkean reasons. Public education is a long-standing institution, and we should perhaps think twice before wrecking it. Yet, internationally, vouchers and school choice are quite common in developed countries. The advanced countries with more market-based education systems have less violent and higher performing schools than we do, but I’ll set that aside because it’s a mistake to make cross-national comparisons without accounting for demographics. Nonetheless, the evidence is enough to say that the sky hasn’t fallen when markets have been introduced into the education systems of other countries. According to a report from the activist organization EdChoice,
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) surveyed its 34 member countries and partner countries in 2008 and 2009 for its annual Education at a Glance reports. As “the authoritative source for accurate and relevant information on the state of education around the world,” the OECD’s reports show that, of the 53 participants, 25 countries’ governments (nine of which have top 20 PISA scores overall) provide vouchers and/or tuition tax credits for students to attend private schools (see accompanied table).
Scholar Charles Glenn noted that “governments in most Western democracies provide partial or full funding for nongovernment schools chosen by parents; the United States (apart from a few scattered and small-scale programs) is the great exception, along with Greece.” Or as Diane Ravitch pointed out in a 2001 article, “The proportion of students in government-funded private schools is sizable in countries such as Australia (25 percent), Belgium (58 percent), Denmark (11 percent), France (16.8 percent), South Korea (21 percent), the Netherlands (76 percent), Spain (24 percent), and the United Kingdom (30 percent).”
In Finland, the government provides funding for basic education at all levels, and instruction is free of charge. In Sweden, schooling is “free,” and parents are able to choose their children’s schools; funding even follows the student when they change schools. In Portugal, the Ministry of Education finances the public sector in its entirety, and the state subsidizes each student in private schools. In Germany, the Netherlands, England, Northern Ireland, and Sweden, “public funding is provided so that families can choose to send their children to schools with a religious character.”
In several European countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland, school choice is a constitutional right. Article 24 of the Belgian constitution, for example, provides “all pupils of school age have the right to moral or religious education at the Community’s expense.” Belgium enacted universal school choice in 1958 in what it termed the “School Pact”; school choice was seen as a way of avoiding strife between Catholic and Protestant schools.
Universal school choice as a way to avoid social strife sounds like a great idea. We should try it here too.
I suspect that a lot of liberal school choice reformers are friendlier to privatization than they let on in public, for reasons of maintaining their coalition. Since privatization isn’t happening in New York or California anyway, perhaps introducing market forces incrementally is the best one could hope for. At the very least, however, I hope they would at least cheer on current Red State experimentation, for the lessons it can provide, and its potential to perhaps move the Overton Window.
Conservatives should continue to do what they’re doing. Right now, a lot of the energy against public schools stems from anti-wokeness, but I’d argue that even if they taught conservative values, it would still be important to fight the collectivization of childhood. Chris Rufo recently gave a talk in which he praised universal school choice as the solution to wokeness in education, and I’m optimistic that hatred of CRT and gender theory is providing the fuel the conservative movement needs to overcome the public’s general hostility to markets and resistance to radical change.
Republicans are indeed getting bolder. In Iowa, when certain state legislators wouldn’t go along with Governor Kim Reynolds’ goal of creating universal Education Savings Accounts, she endorsed their primary opponents, knocked them off, and then passed her preferred policy. Greg Abbott is going for a similar program in Texas, but running into fierce resistance from rural Republicans. With its giant population, Texas has been something of a holy grail for the school choice movement, and although the battle is yet to be determined, old resistance to reform appears to be crumbling as our politics become more nationalized.
Finally, for rationalists and less political types who agree with the signalling theory of education or follow Peter Thiel Thought on this topic, I would encourage more involvement in the policy arena. We do not have to throw up our hands and declare that all is hopeless. The signalling theory of education implies that we have too much of it. One side in American politics is trying to do something about this, while the other is working to defend the status quo, and in many cases to make things worse. While much of the culture war is a distraction, the fight for the future of childhood is one battle worth engaging in.
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