In recent months, policymakers have had to make a nearly impossible decision: Should they open public schools or continue with remote education? If they open the schools then some children will possibly catch COVID-19 and infect an older relative. But if a parent must stay home to monitor their child’s remote learning, how can the parent return to work? And what about families without highspeed broadband? And what about older teachers who will be at risk of catching COVID-19 if they return to the classroom?
We see here a conflicting set of priorities, a real thorny problem. So, how should policymakers pick the best solution? Or is this even the right question to be asking?
Let’s look at a parallel problem, conflicting priorities about automobiles, and remind ourselves about what we already know about how the world works. One person wants a car that runs on renewable energy. Another wants an SUV that comfortably fits eight passengers. Another needs a small truck for his business, one with towing power. Another seeks a car that looks sporty. Another really wants good off-road handling.
What would it look like if the government made all the cars and they were all the same model? How would policymakers reconcile all the different priorities? Would they do a good job? Or would it end up like the Trebant? I think we know the answer here.
This real problem here is not COVID-19. The real problem has been with us for much longer. The real problem is a government monopoly in K-12 education that forces us into monolithic solutions, without considering the individual preferences of parents, students, and teachers. It is this one-size-fits-all approach of public schools that makes it impossible to make everyone happy. What the pandemic has done is stress the system and shown more clearly how unresponsive the state-run education system is and always has been.
As an alternative, imagine a world where the current cost per student of public schools was turned into a portable “Education Voucher” that parents could spend on their child’s behalf. If continuing to send their child to the local public school is the best fit for the family, then they could use the voucher for that. Nothing for them would change. But if a public school nearer to the parent’s workplace makes more sense, so they can avoid taking a bus, then the voucher could be used for that. If a charter school or a private school was preferred, then the parent could use the voucher towards that tuition. If a parent would rather take a cut to their own work hours, so they could stay home and monitor their child’s remote education, or even home school them, then the voucher could be applied to those lost wages. The voucher could be used to purchase homeschooling books and supplies, or to pay for broadband or a computer.
There is a lot that a parent could do today if given the opportunity of an Education Voucher. But that is just considering half of the picture. What incentives would nation-wide access to Education Vouchers create among producers of educational goods and services, if they knew that tens of millions of families were free to consider alternative educational experiences for their children? What innovations might come?
A hypothetical scenario: a business might hire some of the most experienced and talented teachers, including older ones who might not have felt safe being in a classroom full of young “asymptomatic carriers.” The teachers could work on developing a curriculum and delivering instruction, all grades, all subjects. The instruction could be recorded and streamed online or fed into a cable or satellite network. Everyone household could be reached, even if they did not have broadband. The cable or satellite company might handle the billing, and even bundle a computer with the subscription. (They already know how to handle renting cable boxes and such.)
The above approach might be a great solution for some but might not be an adequate solution for others. That’s fine. We’re not looking for one-size-fits-all compromises. We’re not looking to design a “sporty and roomy electric off-road SUV with a hitch” for everyone to buy. The point is to encourage free market solutions in an area where consumers naturally have diverse preferences, an area which is particularly poorly served today by a government-run monopoly.
Free markets are not about translating, one-for-one, government solutions into private sector alternatives. Free markets not about just offering a choice among several well-known alternatives. Free markets are about alert entrepreneurs, attentive to changing consumer needs and the incentives these needs create. Free markets are about innovation.
In a sense this related to Frederic Bastiat’s famous essay, “That Which is Seen and that Which is Unseen.” We all see the public school, the teachers, and the classrooms. We can imagine that, if Education Vouchers were made available, that this would translate into some teachers and some students being in different classrooms, perhaps down the street, in schools that would be privately run, but would otherwise be quite similar to the public schools. That much is familiar to us. We can see that in our mind’s eye. But what is unseen and hard to even imagine are the innovative educational approaches that would be created, here in the 21st century, if not for the government monopoly in K-12 education. These solutions, unseen today for lack of incentives to create them, might be so different from what we know that we might not even call them “schools.” We would need to seek a new word for them, like we had to invent the word “automobile” to replace “horse-drawn carriage” and “lightbulb” to replace “candle.”