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Public school teachers are highly sensitive to any suggestion that their schools should “compete” for students, but it’s difficult to rationalize restrictions on competition faced by any institution that trades with consumers. Education is certainly not a natural monopoly. But in the U.S., K-12 public schools are granted an effective service monopoly over large segments of their local markets. Their monopoly status is a legacy and usually taken for granted, but that does not make the arrangement a natural state of affairs, or a healthy one.

The idea that education is a “public good”, or nonexclusive in the benefits it confers, is true only in a weak sense. Yes, there are external benefits from the education of children, but those are secondary to the personal benefits reaped by the children themselves as they go through life. And even strong public spillover benefits do not imply that government should provision the education itself, free of competition. Economic theory justifying intervention in markets implies only that the public sector should attempt to augment supply; direct production by the public sector is unnecessary and often unwise. Competition among schools will bring forth more of the private and public benefits than a monopoly.

But the public schools are free, and that doesn’t sound like a monopoly, right? Well, no, they aren’t free! Not to taxpayers, of course, but also, not to families with children who are denied the right to fully internalize the true opportunity cost of the resources claimed by public schools. The option to move to a school district with better academic performance is unavailable to many families. What would those families decide given a greater degree of empowerment to consider alternatives?

About 18 months ago, the topic of the K-12 monopoly was the subject of a favorite post on Sacred Cow Chips called: “Public Monopolists Say “Don’t Be Choosy“. It called attention to a thought exercise featured by economist Don Boudreaux on Cafe Hayek. Consumers are very choosy about their food, and they should be. Why shouldn’t they be just as choosy about another essential: the school for their children? Because the government won’t let them! Boudreaux lists factors that would make consumer grocery distribution just like the structure of K-12 education. That includes property taxes to pay for “public” grocery stores and the allotments of food they distribute, assignment of each family to a single public grocery store, but freedom to shop at “private” grocery stores at additional expense. He then asks how the food distribution system would perform. Here’s Boudreaux:

Being largely protected from consumer choice, almost all public supermarkets would be worse than private ones. In poor counties the quality of public supermarkets would be downright abysmal. ….

Responding to these failures, thoughtful souls would call for ‘supermarket choice’ fueled by vouchers or tax credits. Those calls would be vigorously opposed by public-supermarket administrators and workers.

Opponents of supermarket choice would accuse its proponents of demonizing supermarket workers (who, after all, have no control over their customers’ poor eating habits at home). Advocates of choice would also be accused of trying to deny ordinary families the food needed for survival. Such choice, it would be alleged, would drain precious resources from public supermarkets whose poor performance testifies to their overwhelming need for more public funds.

As for the handful of radicals who call for total separation of supermarket and state—well, they would be criticized by almost everyone as antisocial devils indifferent to the starvation that would haunt the land if the provision of groceries were governed exclusively by private market forces.

In the face of calls for supermarket choice, supermarket-workers unions would use their significant resources for lobbying—in favor of public-supermarkets’ monopoly power and against any suggestion that market forces are appropriate for delivering something as essential as groceries.

That’s exactly the behavior we see from the teacher’s unions, from which sanctimony flows liberally as to “public service”. Remember that the classic monopolist actively engages in denying choice and restraining trade through private actions, public relations and various other political means. But why would any sane observer have concluded that these “protected markets” would lead to successful outcomes?

It’s no secret that public schools in the U.S. face severe challenges. They are highly uneven in their results. A recent report in U.S. News said the following:

Since World War II, inflation-adjusted spending per student in American public schools has increased by 663 percent. Where did all of that money go? One place it went was to hire more personnel. Between 1950 and 2009, American public schools experienced a 96 percent increase in student population. During that time, public schools increased their staff by 386 percent – four times the increase in students. The number of teachers increased by 252 percent, over 2.5 times the increase in students. The number of administrators and other staff increased by over seven times the increase in students.

Federal efforts to improve K-12 education have been remarkably fruitless. Despite the massive increases in staffing over the past 50 years at all levels, graduation rates are still miserable in minority districts; schools are more segregated today than 50 years ago; huge gaps exist between the achievement of students in high and low-income districts; and math scores on standardized tests rank near the bottom of OECD countries, (science and reading scores are closer to the average).

The usual rejoinder from the public school establishment is that still greater funding is needed. Always more…. But families are exercising their right to opt-out. The number of home-schooled children is likely to exceed two million by 2020. There are now programs in 32 states facilitating choice through vouchers, tax credits, tax deductions, and education savings accounts. The body of research surrounding the effects of school choice is overwhelmingly positive: choice has improved academic outcomes in both private schools and the public schools that are forced to compete, it has a positive fiscal impact, and it reduces racial segregation. The constant drumbeat of additional funding requests looks unnecessary and wasteful in view of the options.

As for federal dollars, one suggestion is to pare back sharply the number of bureaucrats at the education department, putting the savings toward a program that would emulate the hugely successful GI Bill, under which beneficiaries chose how to spend the money.

Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary is school choice advocate Betsy DeVos. Obviously, the new administration will not view the public school monopoly as untouchable. But let’s get one thing straight: no one is trying to “ruin” public schools. The objective is to fix something that’s been broken for a long time and, in so doing, to improve educational outcomes across all segments of society. The medicine delivered thus far, including top-down planning and profligate spending, has been expensive and ineffective, and even counterproductive in some respects. A few bad schools will fail under a competitive regime, but they already do. Bad schools have no sacred right to survive. Most struggling schools will improve, leveraging innovative techniques as well as their natural advantages, which often include proximity to a base of prospective students. It’s time to tackle the education problem by vesting consumers with sovereignty in the choice of schools.