Schools: Educational Choice or Coercion?

One by one, the alleged needs and benefits of public education are being exposed as false by ever-growing evidence of the superiority of free choice. It has been claimed that public schools are necessary to ensure integration, toleration of minorities, and fostering social concern and interest in public issues—but private schools have proven superior in all of these. And it is claimed that school voucher programs, which allow people to choose the schools to which they will send their children, will lure the most easily educated children from poor public schools and worsen the plight of the disadvantaged, mostly black students, remaining in the poorer schools. But John Brandl, a professor at the University of Minnesota and St. John’s University, writes: “Recent research is finding that when choice enables some children to leave a public school, the academic performance of those left behind actually picks up. (Apparently the existence of competition nudges the schools to improve.)

“On average, private schools, almost all of which are religious, are better integrated by race than are public schools. Children attending private schools are more apt to tolerate anti-religious activities, more willing to favor members of their least-liked group being permitted to participate in public affairs, more inclined to speak and write on public issues, more involved in volunteer work. This is accomplished at not much more than half the cost—not just tuition but full cost—of the public schools.”

Consumer satisfaction is what drives decisions in economic markets. It also drives improvement in the quality of goods and services. When government tries to replace consumer choice with its own views of what consumers should receive, it must come up with some other yardstick than consumer satisfaction for judging performance. So statistical measurements abound. There include measures of increased government spending for education, mandatory testing of student performance, increasing teacher qualifications, and reducing class sizes. These are all poor substitutes for consumer satisfaction with the quality of the educational product—and would be unnecessary if consumers were allowed full free choice in the educational marketplace. The substitutes have done little to improve education. For example, on the issue of class size, the student-to-teacher ratio dropped from 22.3 in 1970 to 16.1 in 2002; yet during these thirty-two years there was no improvement in student achievement at the national level. Massive increases in government spending, and other measures too, have failed to produce improvement. Yet we still hear more about such things as the necessity of reducing class size in order to improve education than about the role of customer satisfaction and marketplace competition for improving educational quality.

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