Government Schools: Public Good or Public Bad?

Public goods, as the term is used by professional economists, are both nonexcludable and nonrivalrous.

The typical school is an enclosed building with classrooms, which have doors. Those outside the door do not learn from or benefit from that class, except indirectly. This education is therefore an excludable good. Contrast this with a radio broadcast signal – once broadcast, anybody can obtain the full benefit of the signal. One way to solve the problem of funding such a good is to package a public bad – advertisements – for which one may obtain compensation, with the public good – the programming. Another is to use technology – cable TV is encrypted; one must pay to unlock the decryption device.

Classrooms are not broadcast mechanisms; the product (education) is delivered only to a select few; the marginal cost of new customers is nonzero and, after a certain margin, non-trivial. A judicial effort in 2008 to make home education in California very difficult was reversed when legislators considered the expense of providing “free” education to 166,000 new students.

This Public Goods definition does not work.

education has positive externalities whose value is not captured by the person who pays for the education. Because these externalities exist, the argument goes, people tend to act as “free riders,” receiving the benefit provided by others without paying for it. Thus, fewer people are willing to provide education than would be willing without such spillovers because they are not rewarded for some of the output they produce. Therefore, according to most economists, education will be undersupplied.

If you learn to read, you are more productive and less likely to engage in criminal activity, therefore I am better off. That’s wonderful – but by how much am I better off? Enough to justify my putting you through school? If you are my child, I certainly have reasons for doing so – voluntarily. If you are a stranger, it’s much harder to justify coercing me to do so.

The problem with this free-rider theory is that it claims too much; almost everything has positive externalities, therefore everything is undersupplied, therefore everything should be promoted by the government. “Government is that great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” — Bastiat

Second, what if government provision is hugely inefficient? What if it diverts resources from the private sector, which could be better deployed, thereby causing underprovision of some goods – even underprovision of education, which is the putative purpose of government schooling?

For example, government schools consume approximately 12,000 hours of every child’s life. Taking the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic – we find that Paolo Friere was able to teach motivated adults how to read and write in just 30 hours. Yet government schools find it difficult to accomplish so meager a goal by 4th grade, after approximately 480 hours of reading instruction. Furthermore, for approximately half or a third of students, the same 480 hours are wasted for a different reason: these students already know how to read.

Daniel Greenberg, of Sudbury Valley School, repeatedly discovered that a motivated child can learn the fundamentals of arithmetic – the first “six years” – in only 20 hours of classroom instruction. When he relayed this to a math skills expert, he was told that “the subject matter is not hard; what is hard is pounding it into the heads of children” who, at that moment, don’t want that information.

So why waste their time? Why 1000 hours of pounding, when 20 hours of voluntary instruction would suffice? Is there some value to the pounding, and to whom?

We do children no favors by stealing ever-increasing amounts of their time in the name of “education.” Peter Gray’s research finds a correlation between increased regimentation of children’s time, and many negative effects – including depression and suicide.

Furthermore, there is a severe conflict of interest. Allegedly, government sponsors education in the interests of an informed citizenry. But if people knew all the downside – knew about the terrible tragedies sponsored by their own governments; if they knew about Public Choice Theory – the presumption that government officials have interests of their own, which often conflict with those of other people, including students and parents; if they knew more about economics – they might strongly object to many government proposals.

Much of the civics, history, politics, and economics taught in government schools is actually self-serving propaganda. It may not be outright lies, but it is at best, a selective telling of parts of the truth, leaving the worst of the skeletons safely buried.

Still another argument: if government did not provide education, the theory goes, the poor would not be able to afford education. This argument was amplified by many, many bureaucrats during James Tooley’s travels in the 3rd world, as he looked for private schools for the poor. He was told, over and over again, that such schools could not possibly exist, because a) the poor were too poor, b) the poor didn’t care, and c) the poor could not effectively monitor such schools. That was the theory.

In reality, Tooley chose to believe his own eyes. With his own eyes, he saw thousands of these allegedly non-existent schools. With their own eyes, he and his assistants tested more than 24,000 students, and discovered that such schools are better – by about one grade level – and cheaper – about half the cost of competing government schools.

The poorest people in the world – people who get by with a few dollars per day, for whom running water is an unobtainable luxury – are already purchasing education for their own children, which is superior to the “free” education provided by governments. This movement is so large that, in some provinces, 80% of students are taught by such parent-funded schools. It is also nearly invisible to the bureaucrats; in one province, the bureaucrats were aware of only 60 private schools; Tooley and his researchers discovered more than 1200.

Malala, one of the most famous students in the world, was educated in a private school. Anybody who wants a decent education in Pakistan does likewise.

These parent-funded, government-free schools thrive in the 3rd world because such countries have weak bureaucracies; they lack the power to suppress competition. We should be so lucky in the Western World.


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