Should people be able to take government funding for their own
private parks, roads or police? It’s a rhetorical question
frequently used against policies such as vouchers
that enable people to choose private schools rather than have their
tax dollars go only to public institutions. The answer opponents
are typically looking for is, “No, they should not. Like all
those things, public education is a public good.”

It is a weak analogy, but much worse, it dangerously downplays
what education is: nothing less than the shaping of human
minds.

On a technical note, as my colleague Corey
DeAngelis recently
explained
, education does not meet the economic definition of a
public good; something “nonexcludable” and
“nonrivalrous in consumption.” Basically, a good that
non-payers cannot be prevented from using, and that one person
using does not prevent others from enjoying it equally. An example
is a radio broadcast; anyone with a receiver can listen, and one
person listening doesn’t prevent others from doing the
same.

To assert that letting
taxpaying families choose their schools is akin to letting them
build private thoroughfares or parks with public dollars at best
trivializes education, at worst threatens basic freedom.

That said, what wielders of this rhetorical club are probably
trying to hammer home is not that education is a public good as
economists see it, but that to work it needs to be provided and
controlled by government.

If the intent of establishing parks is to ensure that natural
space is preserved for all to use, regardless of ability to pay, it
seems reasonable that government must control park lands. To build
an interstate, there will be lots of privately-held property on the
best potential routes. Lest road creators be gouged, or highways
forced to slalom along inefficiently circuitous paths, the power of
eminent domain seems important. And the job of government is to
keep people from forcibly imposing on each other—e.g.,
assault, theft—so giving government the power to stop the use
of force and punish transgressors appears logical.

But education is fundamentally different from these things. For
starters, there is no logical or demonstrated need for government
to provide schools. Schools do not require great geographic space,
education has been provided privately at significant scale,
and there are numerous private schools operating today
despite users having to pay once for public schools, and a second
time for private. And as Nobel laureate Milton Friedman observed, government can ensure
people can access education without providing the schools.

Far more important, education is inherently about the shaping of
minds, and that puts people’s intimately held values and
identities—things that make them who they are—in the
balance. Requiring all, diverse people to fund a single system of
government schools thus forces conflict and, even worse, threatens
to implant standardized thoughts in all people. Parks and roads
aren’t close to comparable threats to basic freedom and
diversity.

The reality of treating education like interstates has often
been painful. In the beginning of the “common
schooling” era, many Protestants objectedto public schooling
“father” Horace Mann’s essentially Unitarian
vision of what religion the schools should inculcate. The arrival
of millions of Roman Catholics led to decades of
conflict—including the 1844 Philadelphia Bible Riots that killed and
injured scores of people—over the Protestant character of
many public schools. Numerous Catholics ultimately felt they had no
choice but to forsake their tax dollars and start their own
schools, which by their peak in 1965 enrolled roughly 5.5 million children. Many
African-Americans, after finally being allowed into the public
schools, have had to fight to have meaningful power in the schools to which
their children are assigned. And they are not alone.

Today, battles over people’s cultures, ethnic identities,
and values are widespread and perpetual. The Cato
Institute’s Public Schooling Battle
Map
, which I maintain, includes nearly 2,000 such conflicts,
and with its content drawn mainly from major media reports, there
are likely many conflicts missing.

Parks, roads, even policing, don’t come close to the
intensely and fundamentally
personal—fundamentally human—purpose of
education. To assert that letting taxpaying families choose their
schools is akin to letting them build private thoroughfares or
parks with public dollars at best trivializes education, at worst
threatens basic freedom. Indeed, far from calling for government
control, the nature of education cries out for letting all people
choose.