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The Need to Abolish Public Education

October 25, 2009
 by Austin Raynor


An exploration of how the government monopoly on schooling is failing our children and how a free market in education would lead to greater educational innovation coupled with lower costs.

Public education is something of a sacred cow in American culture and the suggestion that the system is fatally flawed typically is met with contempt rather than intellectual discussion. But the average citizen’s unwillingness to question public education is unsurprising and merely a result of his own education, at the hands of the government. In the current system the government, increasingly the federal government, has a virtual monopoly on educating children. Americans reject monopolies in other fields for a litany of good reasons, but somehow fail to apply similar criticisms to public education.

It cannot be denied, however, that the current system is failing. Compared to 1970, the U.S. spends 2.3 three times as much per student, adjusted for inflation, but with zero results. According to a study by the Education Department, student achievement levels at the end of high school have not improved since then. Graduation rates since 1970 have actually declined. Math and reading scores of 17-year-olds have not improved in 40 years.

Essentially we are seeing a decline in product quality coupled with a rise in product price. This is the opposite of what happens in a free market, but it is exactly what we should expect from a monopolistic system. It is also exactly what we should expect from a bureaucracy. Poor performance on the part of students is regularly rewarded with extra funding for the school system. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) publicly opposes merit pay. Can you imagine private employees with the nerve to reject merit pay with a straight face?

According to the Cato Institute, “59 findings show that markets outperform school monopolies. Not a single study has found a monopoly school system to be as efficient as a market system.” The failure of American public education is reflected in public opinion: according to a study by the Hoover Institution, only 18% of those polled gave public schools a rating of A or B, while a full 25% gave public schools a D or an F.

Some defenders of the current “market” have argued that the presence of private schools ensures competition. But this is a distortion of the facts. Parents who choose to send their children to a private school must in essence pay for school twice—for public school with their taxes and for private school out of pocket.

Abolition of the public education system would lead to a host of benefits, ranging from greater choice to lower cost to more efficient schools to greater freedom.

Without competition, there is no tangible incentive for schools to improve. We are mired in the 18th century in terms of schooling: teachers still write on the blackboard! A free market in education would fuel innovation. There would be online lectures, web dialogues, 1000s of students serviced by excellent teachers honed by competition. The innovation in schooling would be comparable to the type of innovation we've seen in other free market fields. The results would be phenomenal.

This innovation would touch every sector of the educational system. There would be schools serving specialized interests, schools grouped not by age but by ability, schools designed to meet every need imaginable. There would be as many types of schools as there are types of clothing stores, rather than the clunky one-size-fits-all approach the government endorses. Companies would cater to the consumer because, in a free market, providing a service that people actually desire generates profit. In the public education system, you pay whether you like it or not.

Increased efficiency and innovation, driven by a larger market and greater demand, would drastically reduce the cost of a private education. Even despite the limitations of the current system, the cost per pupil in a private school is still only half of what it is for a public education. The innovation of a free market would drop this price even lower, making private school affordable for far more people than it is today.

Private charity would fill in the gaps. There tends to be a strong link between the level of government involvement and private charity—less government equals more charity. The common argument that without public education poor children would not be educated is not especially plausible given these considerations.

Unfortunately, at this point in time it is not politically viable to abolish the public school system. One way to begin moving in the right direction would be to institute a voucher system, in which the government relinquished all control in overseeing the education system but merely wrote checks to parents to pay for their children’s schooling.

Under this system, however, it would be extremely tricky to preserve a free market. When the government controls the purse strings of an industry, it controls the industry. So although a voucher system might alleviate some of the ill effects of the status quo, it could not be a long term solution.

Contrary to general sentiment, we are doing a disservice to our children by continuing to support public education. Markets consistently produce better and more consumer-oriented results than do monopolies or bureaucracies, a rule which applies to schooling just as it does to any other sector. But it is a built-in defense mechanism of the flawed schooling system that it is able to indoctrinate citizens to not question its existence; public schooling itself is the largest propaganda campaign in history. It is a government’s dream. But on both a moral and pragmatic basis it must be rejected.

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I'm Mad as Hell and I'm Not Gonna Listen Anymore! - Kimberly Ruff
Why We Shouldn't Abandon Our Principles - Kimberly Ruff

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