May 2014

Can markets deliver a better education? What do we mean by “better”? And for whom?

Apart from the government itself, education may be the one sector of our society where markets and entrepreneurship play the very smallest roles. For some, that’s exactly how it should be. Communitarians favor public education as a preparation for citizenship, and egalitarians argue that public education is the only thing standing between the economically less fortunate and simple illiteracy. Yet educational equality remains elusive, and it’s less than clear how state-provided education prepares citizens for an adult life in which we freely choose our communal associations.

Our lead essayist, education researcher Kevin Currie-Knight, reviews some of the arguments made in favor of public schooling and finds them wanting; he recommends a greater role for the market in providing educational services. Here to discuss with him are educational experts Deborah Meier of New York University, Marcus A. Winters of of the University of Colorado, and Conor P. Williams of the New America Foundation.

Print entire issue

Lead Essay

  • Markets provide many of the goods and services we typically need in raising children. Yet education has long been an enormous exception to the rule. Why should that be? Kevin Currie-Knight examines some of the reasons commonly used to justify this exception. He finds them either insufficient or doubtful, and he recommends some principles that might drive a freer market in education.

Response Essays

  • Conor P. Williams argues that some places already have significantly market-based education systems, perhaps to a degree that Kevin Currie-Knight would find difficult to admit. He uses Washington, D.C.’s public schools as an example of what limited, well-managed market pressures can do, and he welcomes some (though not all) of the changes the market has wrought. He finds that the debate should not be characterized as one of markets versus non-markets, but of exactly where and how market pressures should be brought to bear.

  • Marcus A. Winters finds a genuine government role in education, albeit a limited one. He suggests that public funding should continue, but that the provision of services is often best handled in the private sector. The evidence on school choice programs shows no harm to the existing public school system, he finds, and while charter schools do not always or everywhere do better than public schools, some of them have. They should be allowed to develop further so that we can study them in detail and realize their full potential.

  • Deborah Meier supports “small, self-governing schools of choice,” but she is concerned that trusting the market imperils democracy. The marketplace stands ready to divide us by class and race, she argues, and if it does, we will no longer possess any motive for maintaining democratic habits of heart and mind. With them we will lose empowerment and opportunity for the least fortunate in our society. The right answer, then, is to implement school choice within a publicly funded and locally administered school system, one that allows parents, teachers, and even students a significant voice in governing their schools.

Related at Cato

School Choice: Research from Cato Institute scholars.

Jason Bedrick: What Education Reformers Can Learn from Kosher Certification,” Education Next, April 7, 2014.

Andrew J. CoulsonComparing Public, Private, and Market Schools: The International Evidence,” Journal of School Choice, 3:31–54, 2009.