Should Nashville schools be run by an elected school board or the mayor? A better question is “should the government be running the schools at all?” Research on school choice suggests that the answer is “no.”
On June 7, The Tennessean reported that Nashville schools might come under mayoral control. The mayor might be able to save on costs along some margins, but there is no reason to expect that this will lead to an appreciable increase in the quality of Nashville schools. Mayoral control doesn’t solve the fundamental problem, which is that government-run schools are insulated from competitive pressure.
Since they are political in nature, government schools are run for the benefit of various interest groups. This means that even though he might avoid some costs of decision-making that come with a school board, the mayor would have little incentive to improve the quality of students’ education. He would, however, have incentives to grease the various squeaky wheels that pervade political decisions.
The conventional wisdom is that education is too important to be left to the market. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Suppose we produced cars and food like we produce education. They would be produced by local monopolists who are interested not in providing customers with the greatest value at the lowest price, as competitive pressure would compel them to do, but in gaining favor with parts of the political machine. Unsatisfied customers would either have to move, spend fruitless hours in food or auto board meetings, or be rich enough to buy food and cars from private providers. The rich always have choices; it is the poor who would benefit from education choice. As a compromise between government monopoly and no government involvement, a voucher program would allow for choice, while ensuring access to education for all.
The market provides checks and balances that minimize fraud and correct it when it occurs. When markets are left alone, people are usually compelled by competition to serve one another in spite of our natural disinclination to do so. When governments substitute the use of force for voluntary cooperation, our natural inclinations lead to the fraud, deceit, corruption, and waste that we read about day after day.
But, some might respond, isn’t education different? Not really. People defend government involvement in education because we are all better off if people are literate and numerate.
However, as economist Kerry A. King found in a 2007 study of education, the spillover benefits from K–12 education are entirely internalized by the market process. In other words, the data suggest that education subsidies are probably superfluous.
Even if King is wrong, this still does not suggest education should be provided by government-run monopolies. Economists have shown school choice improves school quality and student outcomes because of the constraints provided by competition. There is no evidence government-run schools do better.
Governments may have a less savory motive for operating schools: They have a stake in controlling schools because they have a stake in controlling what is taught and in inculcating students with regime-friendly values.
Education is far too important to be left to the government. Theory and evidence suggest that government involvement in education is superfluous, if not outright destructive. Taxpayers might save a few dollars if Nashville’s schools are reorganized, but this will not address the fundamental problems that government involvement brings.
Art Carden is an Adjunct Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and an assistant professor at Rhodes College (Department of Economics and Business).
Mike Hammock is instructor of economics and business at Rhodes College.