Free market schooling outdoes compulsion

Would a free market in schooling — one free of “intrusive regulation of the curricula, methods, and personnel decisions” of the schools, one in which schools compete for the tuition money of parents exercising free choice over where to send their kids — produce better results for America?

There’s no such thing as “free schools.” The question is whether kids do better when they are assigned a tax-funded school to attend or when parents can pick and choose where to spend that money.

Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Education Freedom, looked at the numerous purported “school choice” programs now operating in this country and concluded none of them provides a useful comparison, because “None has created a purely free and competitive education marketplace.”

In a Cato report released earlier this month, Mr. Coulson cites economist John Merrifield, who found the American school choice programs “lack most or all of the key elements of market systems, including profit, price change, market entry, and product differentiation. … In essence, researchers have drawn conclusions about apples by studying lemons.”

To understand how genuine market forces can affect school achievement and operating efficiency, the Cato scholar decided to gather and tabulate more than 100 existing studies comparing private versus government compulsory schooling from Chile to Nigeria to Sweden, from India to Germany to the Netherlands.

Furthermore, he specified that his goal was to compare the level of private school regulation “actually enforced,” rather than the regulatory burden “expressed in law,” since “many developing countries have extensive regulatory codes for private schools, but do not enforce those codes in practice.”

His findings?

“The private sector outperforms the public sector in the overwhelming majority of cases. Moreover, that margin of superiority is greatest when the freest and most market-like private schools are compared to the least open and least competitive government systems (i.e., those resembling a typical U.S. public school system). …

“These results discredit the notion, prevalent in both conservative and liberal political circles, that the content of schooling must be overseen by the state in order for schools to achieve optimum performance. It is in fact the least regulated market school systems that show the greatest margin of superiority over state schooling,” Mr. Coulson found.

While that’s no great surprise, the question is what course of action these findings should recommend.

What this means is that lawmakers should endeavor to “provide universal access to minimally regulated education markets in which parents, whenever possible, directly pay at least some of the cost of their children’s education.”

Which could include education tax credits, Mr. Coulson says.

But only if we want our kids adequately prepared to compete in the global marketplace, of course.

We feel certain our elected representatives will get right on that, Mr. Coulson — boosting both funding efficiency and academic achievement. Just as soon as the teachers union signs off on your plan.

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