A few weeks ago one of the commentators on this blog noted that I have a “libertarian” view of education. I’ve thought about this some, and decided that this label is partly true. But only partly.
What’s true is that I believe that competitive markets almost always produce better goods for consumers, even as they make life more difficult for producers. That’s what just about any introductory economics textbook teaches. (I always ask my economics students why, as future entrepreneurs, they want to grow up to be monopolists). And that’s the lesson countries like Britain learned the hard way when they first nationalized, then privatized, industries such as railroads, coal and steel.
When public schools are run as a government monopoly, they’re too often run to benefit producers at the expense of consumers. I’m not attributing ill will to administrators or teachers. I’m just stating that without a competitive goad, institutions do not face the same pressure to improve the services they provide . . . and that monopolists always, quite sensibly, resist competition.
At the same time, while I don’t believe that education needs to be a public monopoly, I DO believe that it’s a public good, which the government should provide to all children. And once taxpayers are spending money for a public good, they have a right – indeed a responsibility – to ensure that their money is being well spent. This means that even a competitive education market will require scrutiny, and regulation. Libertarians like neither government scrutiny nor regulation, so in this regard I am NOT libertarian.
What brought on all this reflection was an article that just arrived in my inbox from today’s Economist “highlights.” The article is entitled: “A 20-year lesson: Evidence from America and Britain Shows that Independence for Schools Works.”
Here’s an excerpt from what struck me as a balanced and fair-minded article. Note that the Economist also calls for combining independence and competition with necessary levels of regulation. I guess the magazine is “sort of” libertarian, too.
Charter schools are controversial, for three reasons. They represent an “experiment” or “privatisation”. They largely bypass the unions. And their results are mixed. In some states—Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri—the results of charter pupils in maths and English are significantly better than those of pupils in traditional public schools. In others—Arizona and Ohio—they have done badly.
Yet the virtue of experiments is that you can learn from them; and it is now becoming clear how and where charter schools work best. Poor pupils, those in urban environments and English-language learners fare better in charters (see article). In states that monitor them carefully and close down failing schools quickly, they work best. And one great advantage is that partly because most are free of union control, they can be closed down more easily if they are failing.
This revolution is now spreading round the world. In Britain academies, also free from local-authority control, were pioneered by the last Labour government. At first they were restricted to inner-city areas where existing schools had failed. But the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has turbocharged their growth, and has launched “free schools”, modelled on a successful Swedish experiment, which have even more independence. By the end of this year half of all British schools will be academies or free schools. Free schools are too new for their performance to be judged; in academies, though, results for GCSEs (the exams pupils take at 15 or 16) are improving twice as fast as those in the state sector as a whole.
It is pretty clear now that giving schools independence—so long as it is done in the right way, with the right monitoring, regulation and safeguards from the state—works. Yet it remains politically difficult to implement. That is why it needs a strong push from national governments. Britain is giving school independence the shove it needs. In America, artificial limits on the number of charter schools must be ended, and they must get the same levels of funding as other schools.