The February 21 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reprted on a discussion panel on public education that took place at a state university Wednesday. While reading the article, I was taken aback by the stance of Loyola University economics professor Walter Block, who advocates eliminating public education altogether. He suggests that private schools opertating in the free market could do a much better job of providing education to all, and said, “We shouldn't be calling it public education; we should be calling it socialist education.” Professor Block is clearly somewhat radically libertarian in his views. He stated, “To me, there are two parts of equity, and one is not forcing people to pay for other people's educations. That seems more like theft than equity.”
There are many things that free markets do very well. They are often a more efficient system than an elaborate central-planning bureacracy could ever be. Individual initiative is encouraged by capitalist systems. That said, having a social safety net for those who truly cannot help themselves is important as well. Children have little control over their own lives, and they shouldn't be forced to suffer as a result of their parents' poor choices.
Public schools in the U.S. range from the excellent to the truly awful. It's a system in need of dramatic change. School choice, charter schools, and vouchers all introduce competition and may play an important role in reform. Introducing free market aspects in education can be useful, but abandoning government involvement altogether would prove disasterous.
Professor Block insists, “ The idea that you need only public schools or only the aristocracy is going to get educated is erroneous,” but I'm not so sure. Most upper, middle, and working class families would adapt to paying for schooling, but the poorest children would be screwed. I can't quite buy into his claim that charitable organizations would step in to provide scholarships for every needy child. Privatizing education would exacerbate problems of educational inequality and sharply reduce economic mobility. It would mean the death of meritocracy.
An educated populace benefits us all. Literate and numerate citizens are essential for the functioning of both a representative democracy and a technologically advanced country. The provision of public education is a vital public good and a shared responsibility for all.