Oral Presentation Delivered to the Conference on Rethinking School Governance
Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government
June 13th, 1997

By Andrew J. Coulson
web posted November 1997

Over the past several years, I've noticed that something has been missing from the debate over school governance; something that institutions like Harvard are positively steeped in: a sense of history. The whole school-reform imbroglio seems to be based on the assumption that formal education was invented in the early 1950s. Virtually all of the problems identified by critics are treated as recent phenomena, and their prospective solutions presented as original and untried. There have been a few exceptions to the rule: several of the people in this room have tried to draw attention to the lessons of the past, but for the most part the public debate has been firmly anchored in the present.

But kids and schools did not just appear on the scene five decades ago, and neither did the debate over school governance. That point is most sharply driven home by a letter from a successful lawyer, outlining his views on schooling. He was born in the early sixties in a small town and lamented the fact that it didn't have a high-school, so he decided to found one himself. But rather than fully endowing the new school, which he could easily have afforded to do, he chose to supply only a third of the necessary funds. In his letter, he explained his decision this way:

I would promise the whole amount were I not afraid that someday my gift might be abused for someone's selfish purposes, as I see happen in many places where teachers' salaries are paid from public funds. There is only one remedy to meet this evil: if the appointment of teachers is left entirely to the parents, and they are conscientious about making a wise choice through their obligation to contribute to the cost. People who may be careless about another person's money are sure to be careful about their own, and they will see that only a suitable recipient shall be found for my money if he is also to have their own... I am leaving everything open for the parents: the decision and choice are to be theirs-all I want is to make the arrangements and pay my share.

What's remarkable about his letter isn't so much its contents as its context. As I said, it's author was born in the early sixties--not the early 1960s or the early 1860s, but the early 60s of the first century A.D. His name was Pliny the Younger, and he was a citizen of the Roman Empire.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Hardly any of our educational woes, it turns out, are new. They have been around as long as government-operated schools have been around, and that, by itself, is an interesting lesson. Much more interesting is the fact that another, very different approach to running schools has also been tried many times in the course of history, and has consistently worked better than the monopolistic state systems that have saddled most industrialized countries for more than a century.

That consistency is crucial. It would be one thing to point to a single obscure school system from ancient Mesopotamia and claim it as a basis for laying down modern education policy. It is quite another to say that one approach to schooling has consistently proven superior to all others, irrespective of prevailing cultural, technological or economic conditions. And that is precisely the conclusion my study of the history of school governance has led me to reach.

But what does it mean to assert that one school system is superior to all others? My answer to that question is that it is better at meeting the public's educational goals. I've studied those goals, as reflected in international public opinion surveys and focus groups, and distilled them down to three simple criteria. A good system, according to the public, is one that:

  • Satisfies their academic, career, and moral/religious educational needs
  • Fosters, or at least does not jeopardize, social harmony
  • Provides access to a quality education for low-income families

Of course things aren't quite this simple in reality. There are many nuances and variations that are lost when people's goals are stated in such a simplified form, but these three criteria nonetheless constitute a common, representative core of the public's most deeply and widely held educational aspirations. The whole basis for choosing these criteria, however, is subject to dispute. They all rest on the view, which I hold, that the direction of a child's education is best left to his or her parents. Not everyone agrees. In fact, a long line of educators have argued just the opposite, that parents are neither sufficiently knowledgeable nor trustworthy to oversee their children's education, and should therefore be replaced in that capacity by experts-usually state-appointed and state-certified experts.

At its core this is a moral question: Who decides what kind of education is most appropriate for a particular child? What constitutes a good education? Unfortunately, disagreements on moral grounds are frequently unresolvable, but in this case a moral dispute can be easily side-stepped. The critics' argument, after all, is testable on its own terms. Over the last two-and-a-half thousand years, there have been both parent-driven and expert-led school systems, so we can simply have a look at them and see if the unregulated decisions of parents really have been worse than those imposed by state-appointed pedagogues. To wit, I have added a fourth criteria to the three already listed. One school system is better than another if it leads to: more sound, effective, and efficient pedagogical choices. In other words, a school system is good if it teaches children the knowledge and skills they actually need and does so using the most effective pedagogical methods available, and at a reasonable cost.

Using these four criteria as a yardstick, I have spent the past three years comparing school systems from ancient Greece to twentieth century America, and I have found that one approach has excelled all the rest: a free and competitive educational market. Conversely, government school systems have generally performed badly, with the worst-case scenario being the sort of system most industrialized countries have today: government ownership, funding, and management of schools. It is true that government school systems have been considerably more harmful when operated by totalitarian regimes than by democratic ones, but the public school systems of democratic nations have suffered from many of the same flaws as their autocratic predecessors.

This is a radical, even heretical conclusion, and it naturally demands an enormous amount of supporting evidence. It isn't possible to present all that evidence in just a few minutes [I'm having quite a time trying to fit it all into a single book], but I can describe a few of the key historical precedents, and try to explain what it is about educational markets that has allowed them to work so well.


The first and best example of a competitive market for education was in Athens in the fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. The government played no role in schooling, yet Athenians of that period were more schooled and more literate than any other people would be for the next thousand years. Formal education arose solely in response to public demand, and then grew and evolved to keep pace with changes in that demand. An endless variety of subjects was taught by the wandering professors known as sophists, and people were free to study under any of them or none of them. Formal apprenticeships existed to satisfy the need for career training, and these even appear to have included contractual obligations to ensure that tradesmen were only paid if their apprentices learned some minimum set of skills.

Poor families could not afford to send their children to school for as many years as wealthier ones, but education and literacy were nonetheless much more widespread among the lower economic classes in Athens than in any other society of the time. Parents with limited incomes worked hard to educate their children, providing them with a combination of academic and practical job training, and many of their children rose to prominence in public life.

Despite the absence of government regulation, a common core of elementary subjects evolved, upon which a tremendous variety of higher studies were based. Apart from a vigorous competition among teachers, the public's wide ranging educational choices produced little or no friction. It was generally accepted that every student had a right to study what, how, where, with whom, and for how long he or his parents chose. So though Athens was one of the most liberal and diverse societies in antiquity, it was also one of the most cohesive.

The only contemporary state-run school system aimed at the general populace was to be found just a hundred miles away in Sparta. Spartan public education rejected instruction in academic and career skills, focusing solely on military training. It gave no one any choice, and forbade change of any kind. Based on what parents want today, and what Athenian parents seem to have wanted then, the pedagogical decisions made in the Athenian marketplace were superior to those imposed by Spartan public schooling. It's hard to say what Spartan parents wanted, because no one asked them.


The next great period of widespread literacy and economic prosperity took place under the early medieval Muslim empire, between roughly the eighth and the eleventh centuries A.D. Here again, a free educational market arose in response to demand for instruction in reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. Schooling spread throughout the society, raising the Islamic world, during its golden age, to preeminence in culture, science, literacy, and technology.

Though it was a society grounded in a single religion, it was not intolerant of other religions in its early days, and many non-Muslims lived, worked, and sent their children to school in Arab lands during early medieval times. The atmosphere was so comparatively open and free from conflict, that a modern scholar by the name of Abraham Blinderman has described it in these terms:

Perhaps few other periods in the tragic history of the Jewish people have been as meaningful to them as this period of Judaeo-Arabic communion. The renaissance of Jewish letters and science in Arab lands is a glorious testimonial to the cultural cosmopolitanism of the Arabs at a time when Jews in Europe were being burned as witches, plague-begetters, and ritualistic murderers.

So, once more, a free educational market not only did not lead to social friction, but actually fostered the harmonious coexistence of very different groups.

Both secular and religious charities subsidized the education of the poor during this period, acting on the common belief that all children should at least be taught to read and write. Their success is hard to measure precisely, but historians seem to agree that literacy reached a broader segment of the population under the early Muslim empire than anywhere else in the medieval world.

Eventually, however, the state took over funding of schools, and state control soon followed. Schools became sectarian religious institutions meant to promote one branch of Islam over another, leading to intense rivalries, a decline in science instruction, and a general calcification and circumscription of education. This does not appear to have been what Muslim parents were looking for at the time, and it is certainly not what modern parents want.


As we've seen, large percentages of the population, though perhaps not majorities, were already literate under free educational markets between 10 and 25 centuries ago. Still, it is widely believed that majority literacy is a product of modern state-run schooling. This just isn't so. Both England and America achieved near universal literacy during the 19th century before government schooling was well established in either country. Let's look at the case of England.

For-profit private schools were the first, and throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries the only, to offer instruction in modern languages, mathematics, technology, and practical career skills. The government-subsidized schools run by the major religious societies of the time emphasized religious doctrine rather than academics, gave short shrift to reading instruction, and sometimes ignored writing altogether in the belief that it was not necessary for the children of the lower classes. For these reasons, most poor families sought out and obtained entirely private schooling which did concentrate on academic basics, and which seems to have done a better job of imparting literacy.

Low income families were very loyal to their children's private schools and teachers. It was only in the mid-to-late eighteen-hundreds, when government subsidies had grown to cover almost all of the costs at subsidized schools, and after competition from private schools had forced the subsidized institutions to update their approach and curriculum, that parents began to abandon the private sector. With the introduction of state-run schools in 1870, most of the remaining private schools were eventually squeezed out of existence. Ironically, the drastic reduction in the size of the private education market virtually extinguished the competitive pressure for government schools to remain responsive to families, particularly low-income families.

Why do Markets Work?

When taken together, these and numerous other historical precedents point to the superiority of educational markets over state school systems based on the four criteria outlined earlier. But why? I've given that question a lot of thought, and my tentative answer is that there are five principal ingredients to successful systems school governance:

  • Parental choice
  • Parental responsibility
  • Freedom for schools
  • Competition among schools
  • The profit-motive for schools

Parental Choice

Over the centuries, the choices made by parents in the educational marketplace have been consistently better than those imposed upon them by government-appointed experts. Parents have usually avoided pedagogical fads and have focused on more useful skills. The societies and economies that have grown up around educational markets have been among the most productive and cohesive in history.

Parental Responsibility

Parental choice, however, does not grown on trees. It is not distributed to any an all who ask for it. It has to be fought for and defended like all other human freedoms. Schools that have not charged tuition have typically not taken the needs of families as their guiding principle. Many have ignored those needs completely, preferring to deliver the sort of education favored by those who were footing the bill. Parents who try to take an active role in schools for which they are not paying tuition are often rebuffed as nuisances, since they have no direct power over the institution, and frequently have few alternatives. Worse yet, "free" government schools tend to eventually be taken for granted by parents who have many other important concerns to attend to. Government schooling whispers a dangerous siren song: "We're expert's." It says. "We've got this education thing handled. You go worry about something else." Burdened by so many other responsibilities, parents want to believe these dubious promises, and eventually find themselves disenfranchised spectators in their own children's education. Public school teachers cite the lack of participation by parents as one of their most pressing problems, but public schooling itself is one of the key causes of that problem.

Private school teachers report parent apathy to be far less common. The responsibility of directly paying all or part of their children's tuition forces parents to take a more active role, and gives them considerably more power over the content and direction of the instruction their children receive. Difficulties of course arise in the case of very poor families, and I'll return to those difficulties in a moment.

Freedom for Schools

Just as parents need to be free to choose their children's schools, schools need to be free to innovate. They must be able to cater to specific audiences, to leverage the particular talents of their staffs, to follow the goals and philosophies of their principals. The absence of these freedoms leads to frustration and low morale among teachers, to inefficiencies, and to pedagogical stagnation.

Competition Between Schools

The freedom of schools needs to be balanced, however, to prevent abuses. Schools that are not directly answerable to families can and do go off on their own educational tangents that diverge wildly from the goals of the students and parents. The way to ensure that schools are free to do whatever they want so long as they are effectively serving their customers is to force them to compete with one another to attract and keep those customers.

The Profit Motive for Schools

By themselves, the four factors thus far described: choice and responsibility for parents, and freedom and competition for schools, are enough to prevent the worst educational abuses, but they are not enough to promote educational excellence. For that, it is necessary to introduce the incentive of profit-making. Most of us have powerful computers on our desks; a situation that would have been unthinkable only 20 years ago. But computer manufacturers have not been regularly improving performance and cutting costs out of the goodness of their hearts. They've done it because they profit from doing it. The absence of the profit motive in any business leads to stagnation, and the non-profit private school industry is a case in point. The virtual absence of significant progress in pedagogy and educational technology over the past one-hundred years is absolutely unprecedented in other fields. Every other area of human endeavor from agriculture, to the service sector, to athletics has registered significant gains during the twentieth century-gains that have been conspicuously absent from both public and non-profit private schools. The only proven way of spurring that same tremendous progress in education is by encouraging innovation through the lure of potential profits.

Subsidies for Low-Income Families

But what about low-income families? What kind of service would they have access to in a for-profit educational marketplace? The short answer is: much better service than they currently receive. In early nineteenth century England, families from the lowest economic classes felt that their own private educational arrangements were superior to government-subsidized schools, and the evidence seems to back them up. Markets, moreover, are normally complemented by some mechanism for subsidizing the education of poor families. The modern private scholarship programs described during this conference promise to be the most effective such mechanism ever conceived. It is not the government, after all, that pays for public schools, and the elimination of public schooling will not eliminate the widespread desire to subsidize the education of the poor.


Based on the historical record then, a free market supplemented by private scholarship programs seems to be the most promising way of satisfying the public's educational goals. Two-hundred years ago, this prescription probably would have been unobjectionable, even self-evident, to most people. Today it is viewed at best as plausible but extremely radical, and at worst as the first sign of an educational apocalypse. I am confident, though, that the enormous body of historical evidence will eventually prove compelling... and I don't plan to let up until it does.

Printed with the kind permission of Andrew J. Coulson.

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