All Commentary
Monday, August 1, 1994

Public Education: An Autopsy

The Rationale for Public Education Is Dead

As chance would have it, I was reading Myron Lieberman’s book Public Education: An Autopsy at the same time the Michigan legislature was struggling with the issues of educational finance and quality reform. Juxtaposing the two, the ultimate futility of the legislature’s endeavors was obvious. If Lieberman’s powerful analysis is correct—and I am convinced that it is—changing the tax mix which funds public education and instituting marginal quality adjustments in the schools is the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. This ship is sinking and nobody can do anything about it.

At the outset, it is important to specify exactly what it is that Lieberman says has died, necessitating an autopsy. Notwithstanding his title, he is not claiming that public education is dead. As any taxpayer can tell you, it is still alive and kicking. Rather, Lieberman maintains, the rationale for public education is dead. The intellectual case that public provision of educational services is optimal or at least preferable to the market alternative has sustained such devastating rebuttals that it is, in the author’s words, “beyond life-sustaining measures.”

Standing alone, Lieberman’s book goes far toward proving his point. He examines the standard defenses for public education (the public goods argument, the contention that it is necessary to instill democratic values, and so on) and exposes their logical and factual defects. Of course, he is not the first to perform this task, and if read in conjunction with other hard-hitting critiques of public education which have been published recently (books by Thomas Sowell, John Chubb and Terry Moe, Chester Finn, and Charles Sykes, to name some of the more prominent), Lieberman’s contention is, I believe, indisputably true. The notion that public education serves the nation well now stands on a par with the geocentric theory of the universe.

Not only does Lieberman argue that the rationale for public education is dead, he also contends that demographic changes in the United States will so undermine its base of support that it will eventually give way to a market-oriented system. Low birth rates, the aging of the population, stronger international economic competition, rising juvenile crime, and a host of other factors will create an increasingly hostile environment for public education. He predicts that in the future, we will return to the three-sector educational industry we had during the nineteenth century: public schools, denominational and other non-profit private schools, and schools for profit. (The inclusion of schools for profit is, in Lieberman’s thinking, crucial. Competition from them is essential if non-profit schools, public and private, are to function optimally.)

On this point, I wish I could be as optimistic as the author. The public education establishment has proven itself adept at using public relations and political muscle to expand over the last twenty years, despite the presence of undermining factors. As the Post Office demonstrates, governmental monopolies are very tough breeds, capable of surviving demographic and economic factors which would kill or cause major changes in any ordinary business. I hope that Lieberman is right, but I am skeptical.

The theme which recurs throughout the book is that public education is dominated by the producers—the teachers and administrators. Their funding comes directly from government rather than from satisfied customers and when it comes to influencing the government, well-organized interest groups (such as the National Educational Association and its state chapters) have an enormous advantage over unorganized parents. They employ full-time staffs to lobby for the enactment of new laws that will make their position more secure and comfortable and they spend lavishly on political action. Against that, the consumers have about as much chance as a glider against an F-15.

The fact that public education is so dominated by the producers enshrines an unsatisfactory status quo. Lieberman writes, “[T]he largest cost of producer domination is the impossibility of fundamental improvement. The past few decades have witnessed significant improvements in health care, transportation, financial services, telecommunications—virtually every major service except education.” What has led to improvements in those fields? Competition. Competition is the great force which brings about progress, but competition is anathema to the education establishment. Any policy proposal which would bring about even a modicum of real competition will be opposed to the fullest by the forces of the NEA and its allies.

How different would things be if we had a market system of education? On a host of educational issues, Lieberman shows how the competitive process of the market would give us far more satisfactory results than we get from the monopolistic status quo. For example, he argues that report cards do a poor job of communicating student performance since there are so many disincentives to candor in the present system. But under competition, “effective schools would have strong incentives to expose the deficiencies of ineffective schools. Under these circumstances, schools would not be able to deceive parents over a long period of time.” Thus, competition would minimize if not eliminate the problem of grade inflation.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest of the book’s virtues is that it shows non-economists how incredibly much better they are served by markets than by politics. After reading Autopsy, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to take the benefits of market competition for granted or to remain oblivious to the inevitable waste and inefficiency which result from politicization. Lieberman is not an economist, but he has produced an excellent proof of what public-choice economists have been saying for years, namely that the incentives built into governmentally controlled systems are such that the results are certain to be poor—except for the producers.

Every book has its omissions. An omission in Lieberman’s is the matter of teacher strikes. Strikes and the threat thereof, although illegal, give teacher unions powerful leverage to obtain the terms and conditions they want. In a market system, strikes would be far more risky to the strikers, since customers driven away might never come back. In a market educational system, there still could be strikes, but they certainly would be less frequent and less devastating than are teacher strikes in a public education monopoly. Discussion of this issue would have made a strong book even stronger.

Public Education: An Autopsy is a carefully reasoned book by a man who has spent a lifetime in education. If you are really concerned about the future of American education, read this book.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.