Was a question that came up when Jonathan Weinstein and I dined recently. This post is a summary of that conversation.

Certainly not if one goes by the textbook definition (non-rivalrous and non-excludable). Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that Government should fund primary and secondary education. If there is dissent, it is over whether funding should continue until tertiary education, and over whether government should limit itself to funding rather than furnishing education as well. Why should the Government be in the business of funding education at the primary and secondary level? Three answers come to mind.

1)An educated work force is essential for economic growth and competitiveness (more prosaically, its nicer to live in a world where car mechanics are capable of deduction).
If this were the case there would be sufficient incentive for the private provision of and acquisition of education.

2) An educated and informed citizenry is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy.
If one were serious about this, require a civics test before voting. The tortured history of slavery and civil rights may make this repugnant in the US, but not elsewhere. In any case, immigrants to the US who wish to acquire citizenship and so the vote must pass a such a test.

3) Insurance against the ovarian lottery?
Then, why do we provide it to all? Shouldn’t publicly supported education be means tested? If it is insurance against parents who would not invest in their children, wouldn’t it be better to send the children to boarding schools. Before you roar `how Dickensian’ (Gingrinchian?), it is worth keeping in mind that the wealthy in England have been doing it since before the flood (which upon reflection may not be the strongest argument).

We’ve touched upon the funding question, but there is another. Should the government be in the business of providing education as well? For higher education, in the US there is general acceptance of a model where students have means-tested vouchers (called pell grants, financial aid and student loans) to attend the college of their choice (from among those that have accepted them). Yet, there is resistance to such a system at the primary and secondary level. What is it one should fear happening at this level that does not materialize at the tertiary level? One possibility is sorting of students. If publicly supported education is insurance, one would want to limit the ability of private schools to sort students. One could achieve this with restrictions of selectivity. Indeed, if one looks at tertiary education in the US, private institutions that take money from state, even indirectly, are subject to regulation by the state (who takes the King’s coin etc).

If vouchers became prevalent in early schooling, the attendant boom in private school enrollments would bring with it questions of what regulations are appropriate. Drastic changes in the composition of schools make it very difficult to say what would come of a large-scale program. This is a case where using state or local-level school systems as a laboratory for new ideas is valuable. In some communities, reform is underway in the form of charter schools, but slots are very limited. For a recent article on these matters, see the following NYT Op-Ed.