It is commonly argued that without public education the poor would have few, if any educational opportunities. Without public education, those born into poverty would have little opportunity to escape, and the poor would remain poor generation after generation. To break this cycle, the argument goes, government must intervene and provide the educational opportunities that would otherwise be absent.
Undoubtedly, poverty can pose an obstacle to attaining a quality education, just as poverty can pose an obstacle in the attainment of many other values. But obstacles are simply that, and they can be overcome without government intervention. A study by James Tooley, a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle in England provides a compelling example.
Tooley conducted a two-year study of education among the poor in five cities in Nigeria, Kenya, China, Ghana, and India. His study focused on differences between public and private schools in the poorest areas of his selected cities—areas that lacked indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, and paved roads. What he found was remarkable.
For example, in Hyderabad, India, 76 percent of all schoolchildren attended private schools. Despite the fact that public education was available, many of the city’s poorest parents chose to send their children to private schools, even when then had to pay tuition. Tooley reported similar findings in the other cities:
The poor have found remarkably innovative ways of helping themselves, educationally, and in some of the most destitute places on Earth have managed to nurture a large and growing industry of private schools for themselves.
The students in private schools in Hyderabad had an income of less than $30 per working household member, compared to an average of $46 per month for the city. Tooley’s findings dispel the myth that the poor need government assistance in order to educate their children.
The competitive nature of private education directs schools to provide the curriculum and quality desired by consumers. If the schools fail to do so, parents are free to move their children to a better school. Taxation virtually eliminates this option for most Americans.
As Tooley’s study demonstrates, the private sector can and does provide ample educational opportunities, even for the poorest of the poor. More importantly, private institutions cannot rely on coercion to obtain funding or customers, but must meet the freely chosen desires of parents and students. In recognizing the right of individuals to act according to their own judgment in the pursuit of their own values, a free market in education is moral. It is also practical.