Does Public Education Matter?

The usual objection to privatization of schools (without vouchers) is that the children of the poor would not be able to go to school if it were not publicly funded. The stock libertarian response to this is that a free market in education would create powerful incentives for entrepreneurs to find ways to educate children better, faster, and at lower cost than public schools do now, and that charity would pick up the difference for chilfdren whose parents still couldn't afford to educate them.

These are good points, but a more important question than how poor children would get formal education under a market system is whether anyone would notice a difference if they didn't. Universal formal education is alleged to have three significant benefits:

  1. It teaches children the skills they need to become productive members of society.
  2. It instills in children the cultural values and historical knowledge they need to become good citizens and informed voters.
  3. Failing all else, it keeps chlidren off the streets for six to seven hours per day.

The first claim is dubious. Aside from reading, writing, and basic arithmetic, most of the things children learn in school are of little to no practical use to those not going on to higher education. The skills that people use in their daily lives, at work or otherwise, are mostly learned outside of the classroom. Yes, high school graduates make significantly more money than high school drop-outs, but this is most likely because failing to complete high school is often a proxy for problems that go far beyond having missed out on a few years of formal education.

And even if we grant that the importance of literacy and numeracy justifies the existence of universal formal education, it doesn't justify thirteen years of formal education, nor is it clear that public schools are doing an adequate job of teaching students even these basic skills. This is not to say that school is a waste of time for all students, but I suspect that the vast majority of those who really benefit from it are from the middle and upper classes--i.e., the students whose parents would be able to afford education even without subsidization. Many students, particularly those from the lower classes, might benefit much more from an apprenticeship, perhaps including or preceded by a year or two of basic education in literacy and numeracy, than from the standard thirteen years of formal education.

The second claim is laughable. Even if we set aside the sinister implications of entrusting the state with shaping the values of our nation's children, it's clear that the public schools have failed miserably to instill in them the sort of values and knowledge that would make for good citizens and informed voters. Only a small minority of Americans have even the most rudimentary understanding of the Constitution. Economic and statistical illiteracy are rampant even among the college-educated. And knowledge of American history is in only a slightly better state. Public schools have failed miserably in this.

The third claim is more or less true, but beside the point. Jobs or apprenticeships would keep children off the streets, too, and that wouldn't cost a dime.

In short, the children whom it is argued would be denied a decent education under a fully privatized education system are for the most part already being denied a decent education. Privatization has a clear upside (less money wasted on ineffective schools, plus the opportunity for something much better than the status quo) and no obvious downside.

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Brandon,

Brandon,

Many students, particularly those from the lower classes, might benefit much more from an apprenticeship, perhaps including or preceded by a year or two of basic education in literacy and numeracy, than from the standard thirteen years of formal education.

We should be careful not to circumscribe the benefits too narrowly. We cannot afford to risk the future developer of the FTL drive just because he comes from the wrong side of the tracks.

Regards, Don

 

Don: Sure, but we're already

Don:
Sure, but we're already doing that by sending poor kids to lousy schools that don't educate them properly. My point is that privatization would at worst be no worse than the status quo.

Also, I think you're overestimating the risk of this happening. If FTL travel is possible, someone's going to figure it out sooner or later, once the background knowledge is in place. If one guy doesn't figure it out because he gets hit by a bus when he's 15, someone else will figure it out not much later than the first guy would have.

Finally, there are trade-offs. There's a limit to the expenditures that can be justified by the fact that there's a non-zero probability that sending poor kids to school will hasten the advent of some great new technology.

Brandon,  Sure, but we're

Brandon,

 Sure, but we're already doing that by sending poor kids to lousy schools that don't educate them properly. My point is that privatization would at worst be no worse than the status quo.

I think that I would generally agree with almost everything that you say. My narrow objection was to tracking on the basis of economic status and limiting the accounting of benefits to the student himself.

Regards, Don

 

 

goals of school

I think you forget two purposes of school

1) certification : your school level is a useful information for your employer / investor etc

2) learning to learn. Even if you don't learn something "useful" you can learn learning methods, studying. You learn that it is possible to study things and learn them, which is not inherently obvious

Signals

Arthur,

1) certification...

Yes, abolishing public schools would remove a valuable signal from the labor market.  This probably doesn't justify keeping the system around though.  Keep in mind that if the signal really was that valuable, there will be strong incentives to create at least a workable replacement.

2) learning to learn...

This would be a valid point...if it was actually occuring in public schools.  How many students 'learn to learn?'  Probably only the top of the class.  Everyone else can just regurgetate answers and get by with a passing grade.  They don't learn to learn, they learn to repeat what the teacher and the textbook says.

~Matt

If a kid has the talent to

If a kid has the talent to design a FTL drive, my guess is that a fully private system will find him or her pretty early and put that kid on a scholarship track.  It may be IBM, it may be the United Negro College Fund, but someone is going to get that kid into CalTech.

- Josh

Any benefit at all?

Nice piece, I especially like your comparative ending and the observation that failure to graduate is not causality, only correlation. I would add that the same fallacy appears in liberal plans to subsidize college: "college grads earn more". Yes, they do, but that's in part because they have more talent to start with. Cajoling people with inadequate talent to learn things they cannot understand or use, only brings down the rest as we disperse teaching talent, lower the average classroom expectation, etc. and ultimately everyone suffers due to lower productivity.

How do we know how much value government primary education adds at all, for any socioeconomic class? As you argue, it may be so low that we don't even need to wonder about the private alternative. I think of studies that show Head Start shows no benefit after 3-4 years. That is, by high school graduation, it does nothing at all. It doesn't merely fail to be cost effective, it's a dead loss (except for the high-cost subsidized baby sitting part). What would happen if we dropped 1st-4th grade? Obviously, it would transfer the load to parents. But, would it make any net difference in educational outcomes? I don't know, but it's worth asking.