The Weak Case for Public Schooling


by David Friedman

In many areas of human activity there are two histories -- the popular history, mostly mythological, and the real history. In education, quite a lot of the real history has been provided by E. G. West.12 In examining the history of the rise of government schooling in Britain and the U.S., he has established several important points which go far to refute the popular idea that mass education can exist only through the intervention of the state. They are:

  1. Schooling expenditure in Britain represented about the same fraction of national income prior to government intervention and compulsory schooling laws as it did after both were introduced.

  2. Prior to government involvement, almost all children were going to school. The opposite claim, widely made in Britain by the supporters of government involvement, was based on fairly simple statistical errors. The most common was to calculate how many children should be in school by picking an arbitrary and unrealistic number of years of schooling and using it to calculate how many children would be in school if all children went to school for that number of years. The ratio of the number of children actually in school to the calculated number was then treated as if it was the fraction of children who went to school. In practice, as West shows, more direct evidence suggests that almost all children in the period just before the beginning of government involvement (c. 1830) went to school for at least a few years. The discrepancy between actual and calculated attendance mainly reflected actual school attendance for fewer years than assumed in the calculation.

  3. A particularly striking example of this fallacy was an unfavorable comparison of the British private system to the Prussian state system, made by the Manchester Statistical Society in 1834. The authors assumed that British students attended school for ten years, used that assumption to calculate that just under two thirds of the children in Manchester attended school, and contrasted that to the (claimed) hundred percent attendance rate of the Prussian system. The Prussian system, however, provided for only seven years of schooling -- so even if the claim that every child got the full seven years was true, the average years of schooling per child were about the same in the two systems (7 in Prussia, about 6.5 in Manchester). The Statistical Society offered no evidence that the British number represented two thirds of the students attending school for ten years each, and later evidence made it clear that it did not. The actual number who never attended school seems, from slightly later studies, to have been between one and three percent.

  4. Attempts to measure educational output in the form of literacy, using both a variety of studies at particular times and a crude measure (percentage of grooms who signed their names when they got married) that is available over a long time period, show no significant effect of government intervention. So far as one can tell by the (very imperfect) evidence, literacy was already rising rapidly prior to the beginning of government subsidy. Most of the measured increase in literacy had already occurred by the time a nationwide system of government schools and compulsory attendance was established.

  5. The eventual expansion of the government school system was in large part the result of efforts by the people running it, plausibly explained by their own self-interest. Its main effect was to replace, not to supplement, the pre-existing private system.

David Friedman
July 7, 1993


12. West (1975); Education and the State: A Study in Political Economy,, Institute of Economic Affairs, London 1965; "The Political Economy of American Public School Legislation," 10 Journal of Law and Economics, 101 (1967); "Private Versus Public Education: A Classical Economic Dispute," 72 Journal of Political Economy 465 (1964).