Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Enterprising Education: Doing Away with the Public School System” -- a refutation

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:15 AM |  

In a comment on the school choice thread, reader Bill Danielson challenged my contention that education is a “public good” for which the state is justified to tax. He cited an article by Andrew Young and Walter Block entitled “Enterprising Education: Doing Away with the Public School System,” which makes the case that the only free-market education solution is the abolition of all government ties to primary education.

I’ve finally had a chance to read the piece. I don’t disagree with its logic or reasoning, only its premise and conclusion.

[Warning -- long post]

Young and Block make the same mistake as critics of school choice – they assume that public education and free-market education are two discrete entities and that public education must be an either/or proposition. They take the same narrow view of “public education,” applying the term to the process of providing education to the public rather than the outcome of the process, education of the public.

In their context, the authors make a good job of an easy task – debunking the falsehood that a single-system government education system is a public good. They demonstrate how public schools are failing at providing the prerequisites that might justify calling education a public good. I’ll summarize their arguments and then explain why I disagree with their conclusion that government schools must be abolished.

Thesis. Young and Block note that with the exception of national defense, no government-provided service enjoys as much exemption from scrutiny as primary public education. The authors note that even free-market champions like Milton Friedman believe that a “free” education should be provided to all by government.

The authors dispute some common thinking –

“Contrary to most modern arguments claiming to favor “privatization” of schools, we do not view government contracting of private companies, the issuance of government vouchers for payment of education, or the direct subsidization of private institutions as free-market solutions.”

Young and Block contend the only free-market education solution is the abolition of all governmental ties to primary education.

Education is a service. The authors make the economic argument that parents generally want education for their children. Providers will enter the market to provide that education at a price. Negotiation occurs, and children receive service.

“There is no simple explanation as to why government provision of primary education must be substituted for private alternatives,” the authors conclude. They list as failing arguments in favor of government-provided education:

1. It is a necessary aspect of democracy and, paradoxically, the citizenry must be taxed for that system to secure their own freedom.
2. The market would not provide an equal opportunity for and quality of primary education to everyone.
3. Education is an example of an external economy; market provision would therefore be under optimal.

They proceed to refute each.

Necessary to “freedom.” Young and Block spend a great deal of space refuting the contention public education is necessary for freedom, but their argument ultimately fails because of their narrow view of public education. First they trace the evolution of how primary education became inseparable from the concept of a republican society.

The genesis of the notion is Jefferson’s belief that people could not govern themselves unless they were educated – if people are to vote intelligently, they must be educated in a world of competing ideologies. Over time, this idea became education was a veritable necessity for freedom, but for this idea to take hold, the concept of “freedom” had to undergo evolution as well.

“Freedom” took on the notion of the ability to wisely choose one’s masters. To make proper decisions about who should rule them, citizens must be educated, ergo education is a legitimate function of the state. The authors then contrast this concept of “freedom” with the views of authors like Locke and Mill where “freedom” is man’s uncoerced ability to follow his own reason.

The authors imply that extending Jefferson’s idea is a contradiction to a single, monopolistic education system. The result of such a system is a citizenry educated by the operators of the state on how to choose the operators of the state. No matter how much a person sincerely plans for the interest of others, the plan remains his own, not theirs.

The authors also point out that the realization of public primary education in the United States was motivated by bigotry and fear of immigrants flooding the country in the mid-nineteenth century. Immigration was framed as an education problem. They write –

“Immigrant culture was seen as a cancer on the United States society, incompatible with American liberty. Paradoxically, the solution which would allow immigrants to enjoy liberty was to deny them freedom of education and instead force them to pay for public schools whether or not they wanted to attend.”

I find little to disagree with in this section of Young and Block’s argument, but simply point out that their argument is against a monopolistic government school system, not the need for education. They do not dispute Jefferson’s basic premise that education is necessary in a republican society. They argue that his vision is not accomplished, and in fact is perverted, by a monopolistic public education system.

Equal Opportunity. The second justification of public education that the authors dispute is that it provides equal educational opportunity for all. Young and Block do concede that free-market education would not provide equal access to all, but note that as long as one pays for it, anyone would receive education. They write –

“Therefore, to assist the market’s critics for a moment, the real problem they are noting is not a lack of schooling for all. This is obvious because, under a market system of provision, all can afford some quality of tutelage, but they are not guaranteed a high quality service, nor on equal to that which all other individuals receive. . . .A market system would not provide an egalitarian, high quality education for all.”

But, the authors go on to argue, in order to justify state provision it must be shown that state provision indeed provides a more egalitarian and higher quality education to all. Young and Block then proceed to make the many arguments that a monopolistic system does not provide either an egalitarian system of high quality education. I will not recount those arguments, as they are virtually the same others and I have made in support of the school choice. I would, however, note three points about Young and Block’s line of reasoning.

The first is that, however unattainable it might be in the ideal, an egalitarian, high quality education is a worthy objective. Second, they acknowledge that a free-market system cannot provide an equally high quality education to every individual child. Third, their argument once more hinges on an either/or free-market/monopoly system view of the world.

Again, I am in complete agreement with Young and Block that a free-market approach to education gets us closer to the ideal of a high quality education for all than does a monopolistic system. My disagreement is, given that is the goal, does elimination of government-run schools as but one element in a free-market education system get us closer or further away from that goal? I simply raise the issue here and will discuss it later.

Public education is not a public good. Young and Block spend the least amount of their essay on this topic. They do not actually dispute that education is a public good; they dispute that government schools satisfy the economic requirements of providing a public good. They write–

“There are many problems with this pubic good argument. The most glaring problem that should be noted immediately is that, assuming that education indeed cannot be provided optimally by private means, what in the world would move someone to believe that government can determine the optimal amount?”

They note that government seldom, if ever, translates economic theory into political reality. They then jump back to the ulterior motives argument – the purpose of state education is fostering an obedient and loyal citizenry, not optimizing economic resources. They conclude –

“The public good argument for public schools lacks any strength when examined. It assumes that government can provide optimal levels of a service without any justification for such assumption. Also, the argument assumes that the state is motivated solely by creating optimal provision. However, government has ulterior motives which work against any presumed motive towards optimality.”

Discussion. Young and Block make a strong, in my opinion irrefutable case, that a monopolistic government run public education system meets neither the economic criteria nor a common sense definition of public good. They do not refute, however, that education meets “public good” criteria.

In defense of education as a public good, Charles Murray writes –

“An activity may legitimately be treated as a public good when individuals are called upon to do things that benefit the whole community. For example, a democracy cannot function without an educated electorate. The cost of providing an educated electorate should be spread evenly over all those who benefit. which means virtually everyone who lives in a democracy. It is not feasible, however, to administer a system in which individual non-parents reimburse individual parents for part of the cost of educating their children. This is a classical liberal argument for treating education as a public good – an argument, I should add, from which many libertarians dissent.”

The reason for libertarian dissent is because “public education” is viewed as an either/or conflict between private schools and government schools. It is not. Public Education is education that provides the benefits Murray and Young and Block assume that it has. The question then becomes “If a diverse, private system best meets that need (the implication because of competition), then does it make sense to entirely remove government from that diversity?”

The problem today is taxing for education and pouring the money into government-run schools creates an education system that doesn’t meet society’s needs and cripples a system that could better meet those needs. However, constitutionally (in Minnesota) government is tasked with creating a uniform system of education. The proper question is not should state government be involved? but how should state government be involved?

There is a difference between ensuring a uniform education system and running the schools. The later is something, for reasons detailed by Young and Block, the state does poorly. That does not mean government should not tax for education. It simply questions the way government distributes education tax dollars.

Regardless of it correctness in principle – the radical solution of abolishing government schools and throwing students into a market that has been stifled by the public school monopoly and is not ready to accept them is as damaging to the kids thrown into the chaos as anything done to them by government schools.

The conservative approach is recognizing the public good of diversifying the public education system and free tax dollars through vouchers or tax credits to parents to low-income parents to supplement the dollars well-to-do parents already put into the private system.

The consequence of this approach is building a strong private system that is ready to accept children and maintain its high standards. At the same time, it increases competition on government-run schools to improve and provide a value that is selected by families, not forced upon them. If government schools fail to keep pace with the market, they will die naturally. To call for abolishing them rests on the same Utopian thinking about ends rather than means as thinking a single system can be perfected.

Conclusion. Given the Minnesota constitution, taxation for education and government run schools are a fact of life. Calling for the abolition of government schools is a Utopian view that pollutes the environment of pro-choice reform. Were it to happen before the stifled market for private education is ready to handle the vast number of children in public education, kids would be hurt as surely as they are by being trapped in failing government schools. If diversity of education options is good, then it makes no sense to abolish a type of education rather than submitting it to a real market-place test.

The challenge for education reform is broadening the scope of “public education” to include, through parental choice and not direct government subsidies, private education and encourage further development of the market. Taxes collected and earmarked for education should follow students, not be put into any specific private or public, secular or religious education systems. Pursuing that goal will be more effective than fighting to abolish public education. Taxing to ensure funds for public education in the larger sense of public education is not inconsistent with the notion of “public good.”