Some people advocate for public schools by suggesting that education is a public good. It’s not, but maybe this is a case of people mixing up terminology. To most non-economists, “public good” sounds like “something good for the public.” So maybe what they mean is to suggest that education has positive externalities. I benefit from being numerate and literate, but I also benefit when my neighbors are also numerate and literate.

This is fair as far as it goes, but it still doesn’t amount to an argument for the public provision of education. While standard economic theory says markets will fail to provide public goods, and therefore such goods should be provided by the government, it also says that goods with positive externalities will be provided by the market, but at a lower than optimal quantity. Positive externalities don’t call for the public provision of some good – at most, they call for subsidizing that good. Or in other words, the positive externalities of education can be an argument in favor of a school voucher system, rather than government-run schools.

The arguments for and against school vouchers is obviously beyond the scope of what I can cover in a single blog post. But there are two common arguments I hear against school vouchers that have never made any sense to me.

The first argument is the concern that if vouchers were an option and as a result private schools were more widely available to students, it would drain students away from public schools and severely undermine them. This outcome may or may not be what occurs, but even if the prediction is accurate, I fail to see what the problem is. Public schools are a means to an end, not some terminal good that is an end in themselves. So simply claiming that the scope of public schooling would diminish cuts no ice. And besides, saying “if people had a choice about where to send their kids to school then nobody would want to use the public school system” is not the powerful defense of public schooling that its advocates seem to think it is.

The second argument is that parents, not being professional educators, are unqualified to determine what constitutes a good education. Thus, if parents were allowed to choose where to send their children to school, they would be unable to make a well-informed choice. This has always struck me as unpersuasive, for at least two reasons.

The first reason is that this line of reasoning is one that even its advocates would reject when applied to other areas of life. Most parents are not professional theologians, but that doesn’t mean parents should not be allowed to choose their children’s religious upbringing. Most parents are not medical professionals, but that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t be allowed to choose their child’s pediatrician or approve of what medical treatments their child will or won’t receive. The argument “If parents aren’t trained professionals in X, then decisions about X should be made by the state instead of by the parents” isn’t any more valid an argument when X is choosing a school – and to apply this argument only to the school system and reject it elsewhere is just special pleading.

The second reason is that parents do, in fact, make decisions about what schools are better for their kids all the time, and we all find it largely unobjectionable when they do. For example, President Biden, an opponent of school choice systems, sent his own sons to private schools. No doubt he didn’t make the choice about what school to send them to willy-nilly – I’ll bet he gave it a good amount of time, effort, and thought. I’m sure the same is true of other parents who send their children to private schools. What would the people who insist parents aren’t equipped to make good choices about schools say to such people? Would they say the time and effort the parents spent making sure they found the best possible option for their kids was wasted, because as mere parents and not professional educators, they lacked the knowledge to make a good choice? I doubt it.

People often put the same effort into making these decisions regarding public schools as well. When buying a home, a major factor many people consider is the school district to which they’d be assigned when they buy that home. If you’re the sort of person who is skeptical of school vouchers because you think parents are poorly equipped to judge what schools are best, imagine you’re in this situation. You are talking with some friends of yours, a young married couple, who are making their final decision on which house to buy. They inform you that they have finally chosen. It was down to two houses, the one on Oak Street, and the one on Van Buren. While they actually liked the house on Van Buren a little better, they have decided to go with the one on Oak Street, because the Oak Street house would put their kids into a better school district. Upon hearing this, would you say to them “Oh, don’t be silly! You’re not professional educators – you’re not qualified to decide what school would be better for your kids anyway! So, forget about that, and just get the house on Van Buren! You liked that one better after all, and there’s no reason for you to pass on the house you liked more because you think the other house would make for a better school choice!”

Clearly that’s not a reaction even most opponents of school choice would have. We don’t merely find it unobjectionable that parents would take the quality of school districts into consideration when deciding on what house to buy – it’s widely viewed as a wise and appropriate consideration. If anything, failing to account for that would be viewed as irresponsible and blameworthy. It turns out that parents making “school choices” for their kids already exists and is nothing to fear. Vouchers wouldn’t be putting parents into a new position they are unqualified to handle – they would just grant more parents the ability to make the same kind of choice that many others are already exercising without issue.