School privatization and low-income families

One of my best students this term, a senior named Ben, is interested in education. Here is an exchange between him and me today. My responses are indented and/or in blue. Ben’s words are the rest.

I finished reading the education chapter of your book and, to my initial shock, found myself agreeing with many of your arguments. It’s odd for me because I grew up being a very big believer in public education, even with its problems. However, I believe that the market could handle and solve those problems better.

I experienced the same shock when I first came across these ideas.

I am concerned with what the privatization might mean for students from low-income families or dangerous neighborhoods. If schools are picking their student and they want to show that they are providing a quality education, would they not, when presented with a choice, pick the student from a nice neighborhood with working parents? I’m afraid that schools, especially those that offer a wide range of studies, will avoid the children growing up in specific neighborhoods, effectively creating an education desert. The Sweden example you provided [here is the five minute video he refers to], which doesn’t give private schools the ability to decide between students, is based on a government voucher system, which I believe is something you wouldn’t support.

Correct: I would not support vouchers, except perhaps as a step on the way to getting government out of schooling. As for the concern that schools would “pick the student from a nice neighborhood with working parents … effectively creating an education desert,” my main reaction is that that is not what happens all over the world in poor areas now. In Baltimore there are many independent schools whose mission is to help the least advantaged kids, at least as well as they can. And James Tooley’s research in the slums of developing nations make clear that entrepreneurs in the schooling business to make profit ALSO want to help their communities, so they make free places for the poorest kids. See his wonderful book, The Beautiful Tree, or this fascinating video (14 min.) about what he found in the Kibera slum of Lagos State in Nigeria.

Of course, this concern is assuming that schools designed for students from low-income families would not be supported enough by charitable giving. Perhaps the answer is as simple as that teachers, principals, and even education companies will feel a moral obligation (as many do now) to provide an education for the students that come from disadvantaged background and that other schools denied.

Tooley’s work suggests that charity would not even be necessary except in unusual cases. Poor parents in the developing world care about their children’s education, and they will pay the small amounts the private schools charge them. Even “poor” parents in the USA are many times more wealthy than these parents in the developing world, and in a truly free market, entrepreneurs with a burning concern about these poor kids would, I am confident, make very low-cost, but decent quality, schooling available to such parents. And, yes, the generosity of people like you and me would be a backstop if necessary.

I find this all very fascinating though, and I have a feeling that there are lot of teachers who would enjoy being in a system that had a curriculum they agreed with as opposed to the current prescribed one.

I sure think you have that right.

Thanks again,


Thank you,


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