The Weak Case for Public Schooling

The Egalitarian Argument

by David Friedman

A final, and powerful, argument against an entirely private system of schooling is that it promotes and perpetuates inequality. Wealthier parents will spend more on their children, making those children in turn better educated, more successful, and wealthier.This effect is increased by the fact that family background is itself a strong predictor of school performance, even with equal levels of expenditure. In order to give a child from a poor and badly educated family as a good an education as a child from a rich and well educated family, it would, on average, be necessary to spend substantially more on the former.11

There are at least two possible replies to that argument. One is that our objective ought to be education, not equality. If shifting to an entirely private system improves the education of the bottom half of the income distribution a little and the education of the top half a lot, both groups are better off. Pursuing that line of argument would take me farther afield than I intend to go in this essay.

A second reply is that while a completely private system would indeed result in unequal educational accomplishment, so does our present government system -- and it is far from obvious which leads to more inequality. At present, the quality of government schools varies enormously and non-randomly from place to place. One reason is that high income suburbs, on average, can and do spend more on their schools than low income inner cities, although in the U.S. this difference has probably decreased in recent years as a result of legal pressures. A second reason is that the children of affluent and well educated parents are, on the whole, easier to educate and to be educated with than the children of the inner city poor. A third may well be that affluent suburbanites are better than the inner city poor at getting political institutions to act in their interest.

The first two effects would still exist in an entirely private system, but several factors might reduce the inequality they now produce. A private system would be less rigidly geographical than the present government system. Poor parents with bright children who were willing to sacrifice for them, as many have been in the past, would have the option of sending them to better schools instead of being limited to the school district where they happened to live. Such arrangements are technically possible in a government system as well, and occasionally permitted, but not often -- perhaps because they transfer power from the schooling bureaucracy to parents.

Another advantage of the private system, from the standpoint of poor parents, is that parents could control what they got without having to acquire political power -- which poor people, as a rule, have very little of. Subject to the limits of their income, poor people have the same economic power as anyone else -- the ability to choose whom they buy from.

A final advantage is that a private system might actually provide poor children with some education. Under our present system, the largest determinant of educational output is family background. One explanation of that is that parents are a major part of their children's environment and thus a major source of their education. But a second explanation may be that our schools do not do a very good job of teaching, making children more dependent than they need be on the education they get from those around them. If so, poor children, who are in more need than rich children of things they cannot get from their parents, might well benefit more from a general improvement in the schools.

David Friedman
July 7, 1993


11. For cites to the relevant literature, see Sam Peltzman, "The Political Economy of the Decline of American Public Education," Journal of Law and Economics, Vol 36 (1993)