While the current American education system is certainly not optimal, advocates of a wholly free market solution ignore fundamental difficulties inherent to such a system. In particular, Dr. Donald Boudreaux's recent article
comparing supermarkets and public schools is unfortunately short-sighted and misses several of the crucial difficulties which beset education reform. To that end, consider:
If Education Were Like Groceries
What if education were distributed on the free market, and families below the federal poverty level received "education stamps" to pay for schooling?
Suppose that education were provided solely by private institutions which, aside from federal regulations concerning quality, were left to operate without government interference. To make the analogy to supermarkets even more complete, let us suppose that families near or beneath the federal poverty level were given a monthly allowance of "education stamps", usable at participating schools to help pay that family's education expenditures.
The first obvious difficulty is that a month's supply of "education" will general cost more to produce than a month's supply of food. In the modern era, the majority of food production can be automated or performed by unskilled workers, whereas, in order to be at all worthwhile, education must by necessity be provided by skilled, educated teachers. Fortunately, this problem can in principle be resolved by increasing the value of "education stamp" distribution in proportion to the cost difference between food and education.
The second difficulty is that, while education is necessary for a modern, functional democracy, it, unlike food, is not necessary to sustain life. Thus, while those on the bottom of the income spectrum must spend some of their limited resources on food or die, expenditures for education can, and will, be neglected in favor of food, housing, and healthcare expenditures. This problem could be avoided by mandating the purchase of education by all families, though such a solution would to an extent distort the free market advocated by Dr. Boudreaux and be subject to the same criticisms inherent to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.
Third, the modified free market for education discussed above would face similar difficulties to that of food supply, magnified by the necessity to employ highly skilled producers in order to produce a high quality product. Contrary to the implication of Dr. Boudreaux's article, supermarkets do not distribute food equally to the populace. One only needs to compare a supermarket in a low income neighborhood to one in an affluent suburb; the former will have a smaller selection, in particular of fresh produce and other higher quality foods, than the former. Furthermore, particularly impoverished neighborhoods may not have a supermarket at all, with many residents relying on convenience stores as their primary source of calories.
Once could certainly argue at this point that residents of low income areas could travel to the higher quality supermarkets in order to acquire food. However, due to the cost of transportation, the time value of money, and a variety of other factors, they typically do not, and the same factors that impact supermarket quality would impact school quality as well. Consequently, schools in higher income areas would overwhelmingly tend to be high quality, while residents of low income areas would find themselves receiving schooling from the educational equivalents of Seven Eleven.
While a strong argument can indeed be made that supermarkets should not be run like public schools, I believe it is quite clear that schools should not be run like supermarkets.