Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Private versus Public Education

Are private schools actually better than public schools? While doctrinal purity requires that libertarians argue for them, is there actually authority for the position that they are better by virtue of being private, and not for some other reason?

I believe that this issue is less clear than in virtually all other areas of the economy, for two main reasons. First, education has often been seen as a duty to be undertaken, either by religious authorities or governments, but not as a profit center. Does the Catholic church make money on its parochial schools? I think not. They are subsidized by the church and are often recognized as excellent around the world.

Second, education is something that can often be provided at an extremely low marginal cost. The cost of adding one more student to a class of 500 may be close to zero. Indeed, much of what college students end up paying for has little or nothing to do with the accumulation of scholastic knowledge, which could arguably be acquired for close to free for someone with an inquiring mind dedicated to reading volumes in the library.(Oops, are we allowed to have state-provided libraries?)

Certainly, in the realm of universities, the question of public versus private quality is a dubious proposition. Is Stanford actually better than Berkeley? Is Southern Cal better than UCLA? Many would argue that UVA is superior to its private in-state counterpart, Washington and Lee, but the differences in all these cases seem to be minimal.

As someone who has attended both private and public high schools and universities, it has been difficult for me to perceive many substantive differences not due to either the make-up of the students or the social status of the students' parents.

One of my favorite anomolies of all in this realm of argumentation is that the law department and the economic department of George Mason University have become well known and have been among the foremost in making the argument for private provision and the superiority of the free market: did the students who went to GMU Law make either a poor decision or arguably a statist one in not opting to attend George Washington?

If such students had avoided GMU because it was a state (statist?) school, then the school would have been unlikely to achieve its current reputation as a free market evangelist.

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