John Stuart Mill’s Vigorous Advocacy of Education Vouchers

John Stuart Mill was a strong proponent of mandatory education. But he was a vigorous opponent of trying to push students into public schools. The key to his opposition is the key to many people’s support of pushing students into public schools: having students attend public schools is a way to get greater conformity.   

What did John suggest? Vouchers, at least for the poor. Many people think of Milton Friedman as the originator of the idea of education vouchers. But the idea is clear in paragraph 13 of On Liberty “Chapter V: Applications.”

Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted, there would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battle-field for sects and parties, causing the time and labour which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarrelling about education. If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence. Unless, indeed, when society in general is in so backward a state that it could not or would not provide for itself any proper institutions of education, unless the government undertook the task: then, indeed, the government may, as the less of two great evils, take upon itself the business of schools and universities, as it may that of joint stock companies, when private enterprise, in a shape fitted for undertaking great works of industry, does not exist in the country. But in general, if the country contains a sufficient number of persons qualified to provide education under government auspices, the same persons would be able and willing to give an equally good education on the voluntary principle, under the assurance of remuneration afforded by a law rendering education compulsory, combined with State aid to those unable to defray the expense.

It is a mistake to see this issue primarily in the US context. Education in the US will probably muddle through, and may improve dramatically either because of technological progress (see my column “The Coming Transformation of Education: Degrees Won’t Matter Anymore, Skills Will”) or in a smaller way, because a Supreme Court ruling weakens the deadening hand of teachers’ unions. What is much more important is for the developing world to shift toward voucher-supported private education rather than trying to fix a public education system in which teachers very frequently fail to show up for work. Effective and inexpensive private education alternatives are springing up in many developing countries that should be encouraged by loosened regulation first and foremost, and by a share of public expenditure on education if possible. 

The August 1, 2015 edition of the Economist has a fascinating article on this:

The $1-a-week school: Private schools are booming in poor countries. Governments should either help them or get out of their way

Here are some key passages:

Although Mathare has virtually no services like paved streets or sanitation, it has a sizeable and growing number of classrooms. Not because of the state—the slum’s half-million people have just four public schools—but because the private sector has moved in. Mathare boasts 120 private schools.

This pattern is repeated across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. The failure of the state to provide children with a decent education is leading to a burgeoning of private places, which can cost as little as $1 a week (see article).

The parents who send their children to these schools in their millions welcome this. But governments, teachers’ unions and NGOs tend to take the view that private education should be discouraged or heavily regulated. That must change.

… when public schools exist, they often fail. In a survey of rural Indian schools, a quarter of teachers were absent. In Africa the World Bank found teacher-absenteeism rates of 15-25%. Pakistan recently discovered that it had over 8,000 non-existent state schools, 17% of the total. Sierra Leone spotted 6,000 “ghost” teachers, nearly a fifth the number on the state payroll.

… private schools are innovative. Since technology has great (though as yet mostly unrealised) potential in education, this could be important. Bridge gives teachers tablets linked to a central system that provides teaching materials and monitors their work. Such robo-teaching may not be ideal, but it is better than lessons without either materials or monitoring.