Public Education the Next Social Security?

What about public education has made it such a sacred cow in this country? Discussion of public school reform or school choice always devolves into an argument about the proper use of public monies, i.e. any voucher or choice program always “takes funds away from public schools.” Is public education becoming the Social Security of the 21st century, i.e. it is the third rail of politics, touch it and die? I challenge all who comment to this post to answer the lead question: What about public education makes it so sacred that we dare not change it?

When the concept of school choice comes to the debate floor, inevitably people will cry that you cannot make education a competitive market. But such a statement flies in the very face of logic as we have a vital, competitive, and world-class competitive education industry in America in the form of the college and university system. The Association of American Colleges and Universities represents over 1000 accredited colleges and universities in America and they don’t represent all such institutions. The American Association of Community Colleges represents over 1000 public and private community and junior colleges in America. These institutions operate in as close to a free market as you are likely to find in the educational realm and performing well by almost any economic and performance measure.

In a previous article, I argued for the granting of an absolute right of parents to choose the school best for their children. Many people scoffed at such an idea noting that it would not work. Yet, at the university level, people have an absolute right to choose the school, or no school, that best suits their needs. True, market forces and qualifications makes some schools unattainable for some people. No matter what choice you prefer, not everyone can go to Harvard, nor should they. But the right to choose and the competition among schools has created and sustained a competitive education industry at the collegiate level. Why then cannot such a model work for elementary and secondary education?

Of course a knee-jerk response will be that college education and elementary/secondary education are not the same. Aside from the difference in age of the students, what about the two is so different as to require differential treatment? Is it the role of parents in the decision making? Parents would play the dominate role in selecting elementary and secondary schools, but they often play a large role in selecting colleges, so such an objection hardly justifies disparate treatment. We trust parents to decided where to spend their personal money on the higher education of their children, but we cannot trust them to wisely spend their tax money on the primary education of their children?

In an article found in the Cato Journal, John Merrifield and David Salisbury, perhaps without intent, noted the key difference between elementary/secondary education and collegiate education:

The present U.S. education system is shaped by a political process in which constituents collectively determine how to produce education. Political campaigns, lobbying, and voting establish schooling options, how to pay for them, and determine the rules governing access to each school. Competitive markets, in contrast, use tools like contract enforcement, profit-loss, and choice among competing alternatives to decide what is produced, how it is produced, and how much it will cost.

Elementary and secondary education has become a political hot potato, on its way to becoming the third rail of politics (to mix metaphors). But political debates about colleges and universities, at least about their existence, regulation and operations, are practically non-existent. I believe the reason can found in the acceptance of a competitive market for collegiate education and a socialist, one-size-fits-all, no options model of elementary/secondary education.

And so I return to the original question of this article, what about public education makes it so sacred that we dare not change it?

Posted by Matt Johnston at August 22, 2005 8:39 AM