Thoughts on economics and liberty

Educating our children: A free market in schools

(This article of mine was published in the July 2009 issue of Freedom First.)

In the May 2009 issue of Freedom First I suggested that in addition to ensuring defence, internal security and justice, the free society must commit to equality of opportunity (EO). Delivering EO requires removing discriminatory obstacles to achieving public office, ensuring a good universal school education system, and guaranteeing a social minimum.

School education as a key element of equal opportunity

No child’s future should be jeopardized because its parents happen to be poor. We must guarantee good school education (including vocational training, where appropriate) to all children who want to study to year 12 (or age 18). Twelve years of education has now become a minimum given the complexity of technology that must be mastered in order to become a productive member of society. Such education will generate an enormous economic dividend for India through positive externalities including social capital formation.

In this article I outline how we can successfully deliver high quality school education at a relatively modest cost to the taxpayer (details are available in my book, Breaking Free of Nehru, Anthem Press, 2008).

A fully privatised school system

Children from rural areas or slums cannot even dream of equal opportunity today. These luckless children are destined for a lifetime of failure by the inefficiencies and corruption entrenched in our government school sector. The best these children can hope for is to get some patchy education in government schools where such schools exist (many government schools are found only on paper, or teachers are paid without attending school).

But why does a government need to operate schools? Managing a school is a hands-on exercise, much like managing a business, and governments are terrible at managing anything that must deliver value. Government officials and teachers have little or no incentive to deliver world-class education at the lowest possible cost. In comparison, the private sector can only survive if it delivers value for money. Therefore, parents who can afford it, prefer to send their children to private schools.

Governments are also unusually soft on their own failures. A Director of School Education in a state government will demand stringent standards from private schools even as he ignores the shoddy education provided by the government’s own schools. Governments should therefore not directly manage schools. However, they could regulate school standards, noting that self-regulation by a body of experts is the preferred way for such a task.

As a first step, our governments should stop building, owning, and maintaining schools. That would include an end to the appointment of lakhs of school teachers, an activity that is a source of great corruption and favouritism. School assets (bundled with a long-term lease on the school’s land) should be auctioned to educational consortiums that are at least partially owned by local teachers and residents. I have suggested a transitional mechanism for this in my book that will protect existing teachers.

This will immediately ensure that the incentives of school managers are better aligned to the needs of the local community. Further, the lands and buildings belonging to schools will also be much better maintained and utilised.

Customised vouchers for each child

Privatisation is only the first part of this model. Parental choice is the other part. School education vouchers would be issued by the government for each child and mailed out to parents. Children of poor parents would be issued high-value vouchers. Rich parents will not get any vouchers. The lower economic classes may get vouchers, depending on how much it costs to deliver good education. All parents would thus be empowered to send their children to almost any school they want to. All they would need to do is to pay a top-up amount over and above the value of the voucher.

Under the current model, government schools receive funds unrelated to the size or nature of their enrolment(s) or educational outcome(s). In the new model, they would get money based on a reimbursement of vouchers. They would therefore need to enrol as many children as they can. They will have to go out and literally beg the poorer parents – such as the parents of child labourers – to send their children to school. Where necessary, schools would provide a breakfast for these children: anything to ensure that parents agree to send their children to school. Enrolment rates would therefore shoot through the roof.

Second, schools would need to ensure that the children they have enrolled achieve the required educational standards. Only then will they be able to invoice the government against these vouchers. The more the number of children these schools enrol and pass out at an agreed, independently tested standard, the more the money they will receive.

Note that through high-value vouchers for poor parents, schools in economically backward areas will be able to afford high salaries for teachers and potentially attract even better teachers than schools in wealthy urban areas. Good schools would thus emerge in rural areas and slums for the first time in India’s history. This would dramatically increase both the quality of education and competition in the school market. Very little central planning or quality control will be needed as the market will sort out good schools from the bad. (A self-regulating body of school experts would help.)

Above all, the preferences of parents in selecting the right school for their children will be honoured, and who can be a greater well wisher of a child than its parents?

Raising money for the vouchers

It is true that defence, police, and justice must take first priority for any government. However, universal high quality school education must receive a high priority as well. The system outlined above will not cost too much because the current funds allocated to tertiary education would be shifted entirely to school education. In the tertiary education sector, students would be asked to pay their fees through loans issued by the government (I’ll talk more about this topic in a separate article).

Second, funds needed beyond that could be raised through capital markets as a long-term investment loan. This should be easy, given that there is nothing in any society that yields higher returns on investment than good school education. Third, schools will be permitted to use their land and buildings for commercial purposes after school hours, thus using their assets more productively and keeping the fees in check.

A free market in schools of the sort described above is guaranteed to deliver high quality education – as guaranteed to succeed as India’s current socialist method is guaranteed to fail. There is an open and shut case for change.

Freedom Team of India

Sadly, this simple and effective model will remain a pipedream since ruling politicians in India currently use the school education system almost purely to ‘mint money’ for themselves. Education is simply not their goal. Money making is. To implement such a system liberals will need a mandate from the people of India to form an ethical, liberal government. The Freedom Team of India ( is pushing ahead in that direction. I would encourage you to find out more about the Team.


A new RCT look at educational vouchers From Matthew M. Chingos and Paul E. Peterson (pdf):

In the first study using a randomized experiment to measure the impact of school vouchers on college enrollment, we examine the college-going behavior through 2011 of students who participated in a voucher experiment as elementary school students in the late 1990s. We find no overall impacts on college enrollments but we do find large, statistically significant positive impacts on the college going of African American students who participated in the study. Our estimates indicate that using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African Americans by 24 percent.

Private Schooling In India: Results from a Randomized Trial
by Alex Tabarrok on February 5, 2014


"private schools achieved equal or better outcomes at one-third the cost"


More evidence that all schools should be free schools

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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