Although we have been conditioned to believe public school is a different animal, free markets work for education too. In America, universities compete for scholarships, grants, and tuition dollars. Consumers, not colleges, determine where those education dollars are ultimately going to be spent. Unlike our centrally planned and taxpayer funded public school system, America’s university system is considered the best in the world. Over the last 150 years we have experimented with government controlled school monopolies, and they have proven to be expensive, overly bureaucratic, and inefficient. It is time we consider free market solutions to solve the problems that are inherent to our current public education system.
Treating education as an entitlement tends to destroy education’s value in the minds of its recipients. According to the law of diminishing marginal utility, as a person increases consumption of a product (i.e. education) while keeping consumption of other products constant, there is a decline in the marginal utility (value) that person derives from consuming each additional unit of that product. What this means is that the more we have of something the less we value the portions we possess above what we really want.
Let’s use the “all-you-can-eat” buffet style restaurant as an example. These restaurants entice us with “all you can eat,” while knowing each additional plate of food provides less utility to us than the one before. Despite their enticement, most people will eat only until the utility they derive from additional food is slightly lower than the original. For example, say you go to a buffet and the first plate of food you eat is very good. On a scale of ten you would give it a ten. Now your hunger has been somewhat tamed, but you get another full plate of food. Since you’re not as hungry, your enjoyment rates a seven at best. Most people would stop before their utility drops even more, but say you go back to eat a third full plate of food and your utility drops even more to a three. If you kept eating, you would eventually reach a point of total dissatisfaction, or ‘dis-utility.” In education, the first plate of food is learning to read and write, as well as basic math. Beyond the basics, most families don’t value additional education. While this is a bold statement, public school student appreciation for education drops off dramatically with mastery of the basics, and parental disinterest in post- elementary school teacher conferences confirms this reality. Whereas restaurant food bills are normally paid by the people eating the food, such is not the case for public education. Instead, the bill is usually paid by someone else. This lack of “skin in the game” by the consumers of public education further diminishes the value people have for it.
Realizing taxpayer funded education is susceptible to the law of diminishing marginal utility, I prefer a policy where citizens are not forced to pay for the education of families who don’t value it. Instead, I support eliminating public education entirely and allowing the natural order to inspire families to pursue the education they deem appropriate. It is wasteful to spend money on citizens who don’t value education, but it is wise to let families invest the money they normally pay in taxes towards education opportunities that already exist in the free market. Public education in the 21st century is like bottled water: an unnecessary expense when quality education is readily available in so many other places at much lower costs. Online academies, homeschool curriculums, and most private schools are much less expensive, usually more successful in equipping students for the 21st century, and far less controversial than public schools. If education wasn’t a government provided entitlement, the free market would quickly provide the education resources necessary for citizens to function in the 21st century.
Evidence suggests that under a policy where taxpayers aren’t forced to pay for the education of their neighbor’s children, poor families would also have access to quality education through patronage. At Whitefish Christian Academy (where I serve as board president), many struggling families who value education (and ensure their children work hard in class) have received tuition assistance necessary for their children to attend. Financially successful people in our community continually demonstrate their willingness to partner with hard working families and students who value education, like they do. In spite of the efforts of public school monopoly advocates to paint successful Americans as inherently selfish, I suspect most communities possess citizens as generous as mine, particularly if they are freed of the burden of paying for public education. Community rejections of school bond issues are usually indictments against the inefficiencies of public school bureaucracies rather than denials of education’s societal value.
The inequality created by America’s monopolistic public school system is apt to become our most pressing civil rights issue. Recent popular documentaries like “Waiting for Superman” and “The Cartel” demonstrate that inner city communities value education as much as any other. They also reveal that public school monopolies are rejected as vehemently in poor minority neighborhoods as they are in affluent, predominantly white ones. Teacher protests in Wisconsin and New Jersey have exposed government policies that favor teachers and school administrators over taxpayers and children. Parents and students are quickly learning that better alternatives exist; however, the only thing blocking them from receiving a decent education in their neighborhood is their government protected public school monopoly.
Even though privatizing education is the most efficient way to improve education, I realize America isn’t ready for the idea of jettisoning taxpayer funded education altogether; therefore, I support a voucher system where each child is entitled to a set dollar amount of education paid for with a voucher. Under such a program, each family is free to choose where their vouchers will be spent. Families may choose to homeschool, enroll their children in private, parochial, or public school, or use the money to hire private tutors. In order to continue receiving funds, I support the requirement that students demonstrate grade level proficiency before receiving more funds.
Free market competition in public education will improve it immediately. For communities that lack the courage to do away with public education entirely, the voucher system is the most viable method for introducing free market competition into public education. Because both poor and wealthy communities have voiced strong desires for school choice and equally loud impatience with public school costs and inefficiencies, vouchers are now politically viable. Free markets have proven effective in providing the highest quality of goods and services at the lowest prices to the greatest number of people; therefore, I support the idea of a voucher system that promotes education choice.