If freedom is our natural right, and if freedom maximizes our well being, and if freedom leads to economic efficiency and prosperity, why then do we not have free choice in schools?
If the government schools were producing graduates with marketable skills, disciplined work ethics, and a broad knowledge of science, art, history and philosophy, there would still be a case for school choice, because in our diverse society, many parents are compelled to let the government educate and even indoctrinate their children in ways they do not approve of. The extreme historical example was taking away the children of American Indians and putting them in boarding schools where they were made to abandon their native language and culture. This points out the reason for "public" or government education: the homogenization of America, making standardized Americans out of Indians and immigrants. School choice was deliberately rejected in order to create a uniform indoctrination of the values of the authorities.
In the United States, parents do have the option of sending children to private schools, and several hundred thousand students are being taught at home. Rich folks often send their children to private schools, but for middle-class parents, the tuition can create a hardship, and for low-income parents, the cost is prohibitive unless the student gets a scholarship. School choice provides a level financial field. The two main approaches are vouchers or tax credits, which can be used for any school, or the more radical policy of no government funding of schools, but with financial assistance for poor folk who can't afford tuition. School choice within the government sector has also been proposed and implemented in a few places, but that leaves schooling as a government monopoly, without complete free choice.
Critics of private schools claim that education is a public good which should be provided by government to ensure equality and good citizenship. There is a public benefit to subsidized schooling, and it shows up in increased land values near the better schools. But we seldom hear these government schooling advocates proposing to tax the rents generated by this public good. Do they want to create a public good only for the benefit of private landowners?
Critics of school choice also claim that the best students would be shifted to private schools, while the worst ones left in the government ones. That argument admits that the government schools are inferior! In fact, however, private schools do admit and help the more difficult students. According to a recent study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Reason Foundation (http://www.mackinac.org/studies/s97-03.htm), over 100,000 students with special needs, including juvenile criminals and emotionally disturbed children, are enrolled in private schools. Some states even contract with private schools to serve neglected and abused children. Many parents are paying tuition to provide special schooling for children with handicaps, and the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network estimates that some 30,000 children with disabilities are homeschooled in the United States.
In the United States, private schools typically are both less expensive and provide better education than government schools. In the HOPE Academy in Lansing, Michigan, inspired by Marva Collins' school in Chicago, if the kindergartner can't read by year's end, the parents get their money back. The Academy uses phonics for reading and emphasizes proper conduct, and the cost ($3,000 per year) is much less than what government spends.
It is well known that in the US, many drop-outs and even graduates of high schools are unable to read well or to do simple mathematics. Other countries have had much better achievement. However, a recent survey found low literacy levels also in other developed countries, with many adults having only minimal skills. American and Canadian adults ranked in the middle.
According to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, about one fourth of new teachers are unqualified. Many of these did not complete their licensing requirements. About a fifth of veteran teachers have less than a minor in their primary teaching areas.
A poll by Public Agenda found that about 60 percent of parents would send their children to private schools if they could afford it. An NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll found that 69 percent of parents would like more control over their children's education, and 94 percent of Americans would like to see major changes in America's schooling system.
Competition works to select the companies that best meet the desires of the public. Competition would enable parents to choose the better schools and the schools that best fit their culture. Let's end the dysfunctional government monopoly over schooling, eliminate the financial barriers to true free trade in education, and provide school choice to parents and students. A diverse and effective educational system will make this public good that much better.