History Lesson: Market-Based Schooling Is Best

Published May 1, 1999

While defenders of public schools argue that opening K-12 education to competition and the profit motive would destroy public education, author Andrew J. Coulson comes to just the opposite view after spending five years researching education history as far back as ancient Athens and Sparta, 2,500 years ago. In fact, using the lessons of history, Coulson concludes that public schools do not even serve as a good vehicle for advancing the ideals of public education.

“[M]odern and historical evidence points inexorably to the fact that government involvement in education tends to interfere with the very principles it is meant to advance,” says Coulson in a thoroughly documented but eminently readable new book, Market Education: The Unknown History (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ; 470 pages, $54.95).

Coulson’s conclusion will not sit well with defenders of government schools, many of whom, unable to counter the evidence, will resort to the irrelevant . . . or worse. That tendency was demonstrated two days after the book was officially announced when a critic attacked it as “myth-making,” apparently without having read it.

Coulson, a former Microsoft software engineer and now a senior research associate with the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, reviewed the school systems of different countries in different time periods and tried to find elements common to the best systems. Every successful school system, he found, had five essential characteristics:

  • parents have choice;
  • parents have financial responsibility;
  • schools operate in an environment of freedom;
  • schools compete for students; and
  • schools are driven by the profit motive.

“Any approach to schooling that consistently produced good results across many different cultures, regardless of the prevailing social, political, and economic conditions, might have some interesting lessons to teach us,” he writes.

Coulson demonstrates that the two early civilizations with the greatest achievements in art, science, and literacy were classical Athens around 500 BC and the Muslim empire from the 8th to the 10th centuries. Each civilization thrived while the government played no role in the education of its citizens, but deterioration occurred in each case once the government in. This interference took place on a rather large scale in the Muslim empire beginning in the 11th century, and on a personal scale in ancient Athens, when Socrates was given the option of exile or death because society disliked some of his teachings.

Education in early Rome had a similar market-based beginning. Cicero noted that the Romans opposed education that was fixed by law, officially established, or uniform. However, the late Republican and early Empire eras saw government taking a more forceful role in education, its major innovation being the introduction of the state paying teachers’ salaries “with the teachers’ attentions following closely behind.”

In the United States, the educational system at the birth of the nation was one of market-based schools. But by the early 1800s, state-schooling advocates had begun to attract support, espousing views still prevalent to this day. In the 1830s, Massachusetts Congressman James Carter argued that “it is the duty of a nation to superintend and even coerce the education of children” under a system independent of and superior to parental authority.

In the 1840s, when the Massachusetts legislature nearly abolished the then-new State Board of Education, the leading state-schooling advocate, Horace Mann, called the proponents “bigots and vandals.” In 1851 The Massachusetts Teacher found many parents “unfit guardians of their own children.” In 1865, the Wisconsin Teachers Association claimed “children are the property of the state.”

“Our ancestors were swept along for the ride, persuaded more by the fervor of the reformers’ rhetoric than by the weight of their evidence,” says Coulson. Mann in particular promoted the cause of state-run schooling with extravagant promises lacking proof. By contrast, Coulson’s evidence in support of market-based schooling is compelling.

If you buy only one book about education published this year, make it Andrew Coulson’s Market Education. It is an important and significant contribution to education reform.