Parents and Students, the Real Customers of the Public Schools

We’re often reminded just how expensive public schools can be. Just as there’s no free lunch, there’s no free public schooling. We might have done better from the very beginning to have been upfront about the costs of schooling. For when costs never seem to come down, as in education and healthcare, it’s perhaps because we’ve hidden the costs from the public. To bring costs down make them public. To bring costs down make them everyone’s responsibility. One needs not to be a rocket scientist to understand that.

Today it was a HuffPost article that reminded me of the high cost of public schooling. The map below shows which states spent the most per pupil in 2012. The District of Columbia and New York took the top spots, spending over $19,000 per student. Utah and Idaho spent the least per student, around $6,500.

Current expenditures include instruction, support services, but exclude capital outlays and interest on long-term debt. National Center for Education Statistics

Now there are any number of things one might say about this. One might begin by telling the middle class residents of the city (at least those that remain) that their taxes are providing some $19,000 to each and every student in their Brooklyn or Queens or Manhattan school district. Now given the number of individual student failures, the number of failed schools, the number of school dropouts etc. might not the tax payers legitimately ask for complete transparency in respect to how their tax dollars are being spent?

And even more important, might not the remnants of the middle class that are still around and pay taxes ask (that which they never do because of the wall of secrecy surrounding the goings on in and about the public schools) if there might not be another more effective way of providing “free” public education?

Any discussion might begin by asking that the public/private designation be done away with, and that instead schools be divided up in regard to who pays the costs. For schools are supported by either taxes or tuitions, or some combination of the two. They are not free, and any discussion of the schools ought to begin with that admission.

The single major element that has been left out of the discussion, in regard to the rising costs of education, and healthcare, is the element of individual choice and responsibility. How many of the some 1 million public school students in New York City are ever concerned about the cost of their education? How many of their parents? “What did you do in school, today?” “Well nothing at all because Jimmy X was acting out and we were all laughing.”

What part of the cost of that lost school day was money lost to the family? Then, if they thought about that, wouldn’t they sit up and begin to take notice and listen to what was really going on in the schools?

Well maybe. In any case why isn’t it a good idea to have the $19K cost per student be in the form of a voucher that the parents could administer themselves? Wouldn’t then they quickly learn something about responsibility, especially if it were their responsibility to use their voucher monies wisely and well? To say it again costs will only begin to come down when the beneficiaries themselves have to bear at least a part of the cost of the benefits.

This is January of 2015. On any number of much earlier occasions Milton Friedman spoke out against what he called the public school monopoly. I take the excerpt below from a Friedman Newsweek article of December 5, 1983:  Busting the School Monopoly.

Now Friedman wrote this some 33 years ago and we’re still, all those years later, in the very same place in regard to the schools. We still don’t seem to realize that the schools, the “free” public schools, have in fact real customers, and the customers are parents and students, not teachers and administrators.

Furthermore the customers themselves don’t see themselves as customers, as consumers, as “buying” an education for their children, and, at least to some extent, with their own money. And that’s the problem, the result being that the beneficiaries are not taking on themselves any of the responsibility for what goes on in the schools.


Every private school must satisfy its customers — parents paying tuition and benefactors who contribute funds to the school.

The situation is wholly different with a socialist enterprise like the public school system, or, for that matter, a private monopoly.

The true customers of the public schools — parents and children — have come to exercise less and less influence over the schools as the schools have become more and more centralized and bureaucratic….

Schools are now run by professional bureaucrats. Monopoly and uniformity have replaced competition and diversity. Consumers of schooling have little to say. Control by producers has replaced control by consumers.

You cannot make a monopolistic supplier of a service pay much attention to its customers’ wants — especially when it does not get its funds directly from its customers. The only solution is to break the monopoly, introduce competition and give the customers alternatives.

A voucher system is such a solution. It would enable all parents to choose the schools their children attend — an opportunity currently limited to those of us in the upper-income classes who can afford to pay twice for our children’s education — once in taxes, once in tuition.

Under such a plan, parents would receive vouchers corresponding to all or part of the amount that the state or local community is committed to spending to provide public schooling for their children. These vouchers could be used only for schooling — in either public or private schools. The source of public funds would remain the same as it is now — the taxpayers.

The key difference from the present system — and it is a crucial difference — is that parents, and not government bureaucrats, would decide what schools their children attend. In the process, they would also decide which schools get more funds and which less.

Vouchers would give teachers and administrators a strong incentive to meet the wants of their real customers — parents and students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s