by Jeffry R. Fisher

There are two kinds of "unfairness" that I hear frequently when discussing education. Some people are afraid that somebody somewhere has more or less money than somebody else. Others are up in arms because some students are brighter than others and need to be equalized.

Rich Versus Poor

Outside of parochial schools, only a few very wealthy families can afford to give their children a private education. Anyone who defends the current system defends that elitism. My petition to government: "Just give us the money!"

But wait, that's not all. Much of the middle class can afford to live in upscale suburbs that attract better teachers. As it stands, the wealthy can have whatever they want, the upper middle class can usually move to half decent school districts, and the poor get shafted.

The current system dumps the most incompetent, inexperienced, illiterate teachers into the poorest neighborhoods where poor kids are stuck with them because now they don't have a choice. Poor education in poor neighborhoods perpetuates a cycle of poverty.

Improved equality is as close as public scholarships. With cash comes fluidity, mobility, and economic competition. Pilot programs have demonstrated that even randomly selected kids in poor urban neighborhoods benefit enormously from private schools that are willing to serve their communities at prices below current per-child government spending. This is part of the reason that some of the most energetic activists for school privatization are inner city parents.

Therefore, government could vastly improve the bottom end of education if it would just give up owning and administering schools, disband the attendant bureaucracy, and then auction off the land and buildings. All government needs to do is to hand out cheques.

Common Complaint: "It's not the money, it's that the parents don't care"

See above... Random kids benefited enormously... and saved the school district money. That doesn't mean that they were brought up to the same level as happy rich kids; it just means that they were better off than in public school. How can anyone turn down better and cheaper? ...A product of one of those inner-city public schools perhaps... or the incompetents who run them... or the venal political power brokers that feed off the system.

Besides, there are always some parents who care but are trapped in their districts. In those districts, scholarships would at least grant caring parents an escape hatch. It's better to help some than none, but I think we can help nearly all... a lot.

Inner-city Versus Suburbia

Another common complaint says, "Investors aren't gonna think, 'hmm, education is in demand... Let's go to the poorest inner-city neighborhood and open up an expensive school with really good teachers to educated the poor .'"

Some might, because some investors are socially conscious. If the above complaint resonated with you, then consider this: What if schools were privatized over the objections of the country's socialists, and you found out about a social activist trying to create good education within reach of your favorite inner urban area, wouldn't you invest/contribute? If the government scholarship money was done right, then I would.

Even the coolly calculating investor can think, "The suburbs will attract the early competition from all of the innovators who want a peaceful, boring work environment. I don't want to go up against all of them. The huddled masses in the inner city have just as much (or more) scholarship money as the suburban kids. I can scoop up thousands of scholarships just by placing the 3-R's and discipline within their reach. Compared to the crap they've gotten for generations, my simple school will be a miracle. I'll make millions just because I took the road less traveled (a risk)."

Of course, once the experiments in the 'burbs have revealed some superior methods, some can be copied in the cities, further improving them.

Worries of Inequity...

Complaint: "If education is privatized, then the best staff will go to schools that can afford them. Schools that can't afford good teachers will be stuck with the incompetent ones."

This worry is illogical on a several levels:

First, free markets weed out poorly organized operations, promoting efficiency. Efficiency means offering as much product or service as possible for as little cost as possible. Because government scholarships would set a floor for funding, competition, and therefore efficiency, would be aimed at raising the service level. Since "teacher quality" is a high priority for many parents, a huge part of "high service level" would be pouring a greater percentage of funding into classrooms than bureaucratic public schools do.

At this, schools in a free enterprise system would be behaving like other businesses that hire highly educated professionals. Working conditions would improve and salaries would rise to compete not just with other schools (the assumption in static thinking), but against other businesses to attract the best and brightest people into teaching. Those "less able" teachers that are a problem in the current system will probably be forced into other careers, possibly being relegated to subordinate baby-sitting roles under more capable teachers.

Changing teacher quality from the current "good enough for government work" paradigm to a competitive professional paradigm is therefore one of the main reasons to privatize schools ASAP. Unfortunately, competent, highly paid professionals tend not to unionize, and unions are very politically powerful, so unions oppose any change that would radically raise competence and (ironically) pay. See "Principalities".

Complaint: "Education will get better only for those able to pay extra"

Horsefeathers! I'm sure that privatization will improve all K-12 education. First, a properly guarded free market is more efficient than a bureaucratic system, typically by a three to one ratio.

Second, free markets spawn variety where bureaucracies impose uniformity. That means that even if the overall subjective level of quality doesn't improve, most parents would still be more likely to find the kind of education they want for their children (see "Diversification"). This means that even in a zero-sum quality scenario, more parents get more of what they want for their children.

Smart Versus...

Complaint: "The 'smart' kids will get into special schools/classes that (gasp) exaggerate their unholy (i.e. natural) advantage!"

Horror of horrors, liberated education might actually free the best and brightest to be all they can be. Some envious socialists want to save us from this nightmare by holding back the bright kids, forcing them to help the slow kids instead. This burns me up. Society benefits most by maximizing potential, not by equalizing it. Those best and brightest likely include someone who will grow up to invent a cure for the cancer you're going to get. Therefore, equalizing his/her outcome could very well kill you. Much worse, your misplaced egalitarianism could kill me.

Think of all of the purposes of public education. Socializing the students according to adult standards of egalitarianism is not the only one nor even the first one... In fact, I don't think it even belongs on the list. Education is supposed to come in there somewhere, and I propose that it should be at the top. To the extent that one sets social engineering goals, the original goal of education is sacrificed.

Complaint: "In life everyone has to interact with people of differing levels of intellect, so why not learn how to do this in school?"

Because it interferes with the primary goal. Socialization can occur outside class. Imagine, socializing in a social setting! Also, timing is an issue here; are we talking about very young children or teens? Granted, we must learn to deal with dissimilar people. However, should our first experiences be the most difficult? Wouldn't it be wiser to develop our basic social skills in an actual social environment and then expand those abilities later? Shouldn't we first foster self-confidence that comes from a sense of belonging? Well, I'm not going to propose to force that either. I just want to liberate the whole system so parents can place there kids wherever there's an educator who wants their money.

Private schools might decide to separate classes from the start and then ask the advanced students to provide some supervised tutoring to average or slow students. After all, even the tutor benefits by solidifying his or her knowledge. Students can also mix up and down the age ladder.

Wishful Thinking: "Putting kids of varying intellect together raises the bar of what caliber of work is expected."

Like hell it does. That's an old idea that has been discredited. Slow students do not pick up the pace, instead they are left behind, quietly (or worse, noisily) ignoring teaching based on prior lessons they never mastered.

Worst of all, parents of confused children get on the teachers' cases for being "too tough" or "not explaining things well enough", often because the parents themselves are unclear on the lessons being presented. Teachers who stand up to these parents are dismissed before they ever get tenure. Most who remain teach to the lowest common denominator, leaving the bright kids to become bored and tune out (or lash out).

Misplaced Priority: "If kids really need enrichment or remedial-type activities, put them in special classes and groups outside of the main classroom."

Ugh! That's essentially saying that the primary purpose for school is the social engineering and that if you really need to learn something, then you should do it after school. Turn that around, putting education first: If students really need to socialize across grade levels or academic lanes, then they can do so in extracurricular activities, not all of which would even involve school: sports, band, theater, dances, scouting, church etc.


I don't expect privatization to be a perfect system in which everyone gets the same education. What I do expect is an improved system where everyone gets an education as good or better than they get now. I am sickened by those who doggedly (and irrationally) defend a horrible system because nobody can prove to them that the alternative is going to be perfect. An improvement is an improvement, especially when we know that we can get more quality and more variety for a lower cost.

The poorest urban schools, which suffer the most under the current system, will gain the most from liberation. Therefore, I expect more equality, not less.

Copyright 2003-2008 by Jeffry R. Fisher: Permission is granted to reproduce this article in whole, but only in combination with attribution, the original title, the original URL, and this copyright notice.
Jeffry R. Fisher is the founder and president of Propagate Ltd, which is liberating digital content as