Free the Education Market

by David E. Shellenberger on June 20, 2015

I appreciated the opportunity to share observations for Rebeca Morla’s May 15, 2015 article for the PanAm Post, “Washington State’s School Officials Pocket More than the Governor.” The article discusses the Washington Policy Center’s recent report, “Where the Money Goes in Public Education.”

The center found that “only 60 cents of every school dollar actually reaches school classrooms” and that school superintendents receive lavish salaries. My comments advocated a free market in education and the end of compulsory education laws. My conclusion: “Rather than trying to reform a system that is inherently flawed, I recommend freeing education from the clutches of the government.”

Since education is one of the most pernicious activities of government, I offer further observations. While the focus is on the United States, the principles are applicable to any country. I am grateful for the resources on the website of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an excellent institution.

As an anarchist, I support the end of government and all its functions. However, even people who believe in government may find that a free market in education is an attractive idea. Some of these people may ultimately find that freedom from government itself is an even more attractive idea.

End Compulsory Education Laws

As I commented in Ms. Morla’s article, we “need to end compulsory education laws, allowing parents to raise their children as they see fit.” The laws are unnecessary and counterproductive.

Milton and Rose D. Friedman observed in Free to Choose (1980) that schooling was virtually universal in the United States and United Kingdom before government enacted compulsory education laws and took over education. They concluded that the laws were unnecessary.

In an interview with Dr. and Mrs. Friedman by Deroy Murdock in 1999, Dr. Friedman again made these points and also noted that, despite the laws, literacy had decreased in the prior century. He argued for at least cutting the age of compulsory education from 18 to 16. “You force kids who have no wish to be in school into schools that do not arouse their interest. What are they going to do? They’re going to make trouble.”

In the interview, Mrs. Friedman expressed the fundamental objection to the laws: “Parents can decide if they want their kids to go to school, where and when. It’s not really a government function.”

State governments nevertheless have been ruthless in enforcing the laws against students and parents. Walter Olson observes“American policymakers didn’t just ignore Friedman’s views, they galloped off in the other direction. Coaxed by the education lobby, legislatures toughened school attendance laws, barbing them with more criminal and civil penalties.”

Mr. Olson notes that there is currently a reaction against the criminalization of truancy. Given the increasingly authoritarian nature of government in the United States, and the political power of teachers unions, achieving decriminalization will be difficult.

The National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers union (and the largest labor union) in the United States, is not satisfied with even the existing compulsory education laws. It calls for (PDF) “mandating high school graduation or equivalency as compulsory for everyone below the age of 21,” shamelessly proffering the mandate as a “dropout fix.”

What is needed is not merely the decriminalization of truancy, but rather the repeal of the compulsory education laws.

End Government Schools

As Milton Friedman pointed out, the term “public schools” is misleading; the accurate term is “government schools.” Mr. Murdock discussed why this is true, and observed:

The word ‘government’ lacks this gloss [of ‘public’]. It rarely gives people a warm and toasty feeling. Thus, the term ‘government schools’ stops people in their tracks. It reminds them why schools run by politicians frequently fail: They are part of the same state that too often robs us blind, delivers poor services, and founders in corruption.

The case against government schools is simple. The schools are financed through plunder, i.e., taxation. They are isolated from market forces, so they do a poor job of meeting the needs of parents and students. They are creatures of politics and thus serve politicians, bureaucrats, and teachers unions. Finally, they serve the state’s interest in having docile subjects by indoctrinating students and teaching them to conform.

The case against government schools is old as well as obvious. George Smith, in Part 2 of his four-part essay, “Critics of State Education,” observed, “I can think of no argument against state education by modern libertarians that was not formulated, and often with more force and clarity, by the [nineteenth-century] Voluntaryists.”

In the early twentieth century (1924), H. L. Mencken echoed (PDF) a primary concern of the Voluntaryists, one many of us continue to express:

The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.

End Government Regulation of Education

The Friedmans observed that compulsory education laws provide “the justification for government control over the standards of private schools.” Government needs little excuse to regulate any activity, and would seek to continue to regulate private schools even with the repeal of compulsory education laws. As the Heartland Institute notes, “State constitutions typically allow for heavy regulation of private secular schools regardless of whether those schools receive any government funding.”

As I commented in Ms. Morla’s article, government is the worst provider of any service; the free market is the best. This principle applies to not only to the operation of schools, but also to the regulation of education.

As Howard Baetjer Jr. has discussed, consumers regulate markets simply through the process of making decisions based on price and quality. “We face a choice between kinds of regulation: regulation by legislatures and bureaucracies, or regulation by market forces — regulation by restriction of choice, or regulation by the exercise of choice.”

The Internet has now made it much easier for consumers to research providers of goods and services. It also has made it imperative for providers to earn and maintain good reputations to survive and succeed.

Formal private regulation often supplements the informal, automatic regulation that occurs through the market process. Private accreditation agencies already regulate the private school industry, served by membership organizations including the National Council for Private School Accreditation and the National Association of Independent Schools. In a free market in education, with a multitude of private schools, competing accreditation agencies and membership organizations would help ensure the quality of institutions while also serving as sources of information for parents and students.

As Andrew J. Coulson concludes, the free-market system in education “works not simply in theory, but in practice.” “The least regulated, most market-like education systems most consistently outperform state school systems, such as we have in the United States.”

Create School Choice Through a Free Market

Government’s system of schooling is designed to limit choice. The means, beside regulation, include financing schools through taxes and tying residence to access to schools.

Government forces parents to pay for schools regardless of use; this helps it maintain its virtual monopoly on schooling. Many parents who would prefer to send their children to private schools are deterred by the fact that they would be paying twice, once through property and other taxes for unused government schools, and again through tuition for private schools.

Government also imposes a limitation on access to its own schools by tying residence to schooling. Jason Bedrick has discussed the effects of this tie:

Essentially, access to a quality education depends on one’s parents’ ability to purchase a relatively more expensive house in an area with a good school. That this is a horribly unjust policy for low-income children is obvious and oft-discussed, but what’s often overlooked is that the negative consequences also extend to middle-income families.

[M]iddle-income parents who desire the best for their children must seek out housing in areas with better government schools or scrape together money for private school tuition. [T]his too-often means purchasing a home that is just barely within a family’s financial means, creating a situation where millions of middle-income families live ‘hand-to-mouth.’ 

Choice programs are government’s reaction to a problem it has created — its operation of schools. The programs vary in fairness, but they all accommodate the problem instead of resolving it.

Milton Friedman popularized the concept of government-funded school vouchers, but he viewed the programs as a step towards a free market: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.”

It is time to pursue the ideal. We should reject government-sanctioned school choice and achieve full educational freedom. Just as the government’s postal service should be closed, not just subject to competition, so its schools should be closed, not just subject to choice.

The continued existence of government schools means continued taxation to finance a service that should be supplied by the market. It means continued educational mediocrity in remaining schools. And it means the continued molding of students by the state in these schools.

Schools as we know them are anachronisms. Only a free market will liberate parents and educational providers and meet the needs of individual students.

Education can be unlinked not only from housing, but also from geography and time. Through the Internet, primary and secondary school-age students could learn from the best teachers in the world, on any subject, through either live or recorded lessons. And they could access the lessons from school or home, reviewing recorded lessons as often as they wish. The resources offered by Khan Academy, including interactive features, just hint at the potential.

Some parents would send their children to non-profit or for-profit private schools. Other parents would homeschool their children, with some homeschoolers taking the approach of “unschooling.” Many parents would use a combination of options. There would be no compulsion or government regulation, allowing education to flourish and evolve.

The fact that education would no longer be government-subsidized is not an obstacle to a free market. Private schooling or homeschooling would be affordable for most people, particularly if taxes that are now assessed to pay for government schools were eliminated. Government has an incentive to spend and thus make services costly, while private firms in a free market have an incentive to minimize costs and limit prices.

Private charitable organizations could help needy parents with the expense of homeschooling or private schooling, and schools could provide scholarships. Providers of educational content, particularly via the Internet, could earn revenue from advertising, subsidizing costs.

As James Tooley has shown, even parents who live in poverty — in India, China, and Africa — can afford private schools. As the late John Blundell wrote, in discussing Dr. Tooley’s 2009 book The Beautiful Tree, “Private education does not have to be expensive.”

The international provision of low-cost, private, for-profit schooling is a growing industry. Dr. Tooley’s 2012 book, From Village School to Global Brand, focuses on the SABIS Network, which now has schools on five continents. Dr. Tooley co-founded and serves as chairman of Omega Schools in Ghana and co-founded Empathy Learning Systems in India. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have invested in Bridge International Academies, with schools in Kenya and Uganda.

Do Not Send Your Children to Government Schools

Government schools are not like prisons. As Peter Gray explains, they are prisons:

The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a crime, but they put you in school just because of your age. In other respects school and prison are the same. In both places you are stripped of your freedom and dignity. You are told exactly what you must do, and you are punished for failing to comply. Actually, in school you must spend more time doing exactly what you are told to do than is true in adult prisons, so in that sense school is worse than prison.

Prisons are not happy places. Mencken wrote of the misery of government schools in 1928:

School days, I believe, are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence. They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances, brutal violations of common sense and common decency. It doesn’t take a reasonably bright boy long to discover that most of what is rammed into him is nonsense, and that no one really cares very much whether he learns it or not.

Joe Queenan’s essay in the Wall Street Journal last month shows that little has changed:

School seems to be an almost universally unpleasant experience. You can try to sugarcoat it, yes, but you know from personal experience that school is horrid. There you are with all that imagination and energy, and yet you’re trapped inside all day reading books you don’t want to be reading and learning things you don’t want to be learning from teachers who often don’t want to be teaching.

Pending the achievement of a free market in education, parents could consider rejecting the idea of sending their children to government schools. Yes, parents pay for the schools even if they do not use them, but is this a good reason to send children to prison?

Instead of selecting a community based on the quality of the government schools, parents could choose where to live based on educational freedom. This path would give their children the chance for happier and more successful lives, and set an example of rejecting conformity in favor of freedom.


What will education look like in a free market? It will look free, with the joy, creativity, and surprise that come with freedom.

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