Covid-19, and governments’ responses to it, has caused disruption in many markets. Early in the pandemic, there were runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Now, we see shortages of computer chips, price spikes in energy, and inflation.

Despite these issues, the past 18 months have shown markets to be incredibly resilient, as businesses have worked tirelessly to ensure products and services get to consumers despite government restrictions. But we’re also currently seeing how Covid-19 is causing significant problems in one area that does not have free markets: government-run schools.

In many school districts across the country — including in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley, where I live — there has been considerable controversy over masking requirements (or lack thereof). Some in the community would like to see all children wearing masks. Others want it completely optional for children to wear masks. And others still would like to see something in between — perhaps a requirement that unvaccinated students wear masks.

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This is a major problem for public schools, because many regions have just one public school that serves all the students in the area. So, one decision on the masking rules impacts everyone. And given all working adults in the region are paying into the system in form of local taxes, many naturally feel that they should get their way.

This isn’t the first time and won’t be the last time that public schools are in the center of controversy. Beyond masking, many school districts across the country face scrutiny on how much Critical Race Theory, and lessons influenced by gender and racial curricula, should be taught in K-12 schools. And there have long been uproars over other issues, like the use of standardized tests and whether prayer should be encouraged or disallowed. Such issues are as old as the country itself.

Why do we see these types of controversies in public schools and not in other areas? Why aren’t people holding protests over clothing? And why don’t we see consumers upset over the options available in the latest Subaru model, or the latest food options at the grocery store? 

To these questions there is a simple answer: There are markets for these products, but not for government-run school systems.

The lack of a competitive market is the real problem here. While some families can double-pay (in the form of taxes and separate tuition) to send their children to private schools, many cannot. Therefore, those with less purchasing power are stuck in their home school districts. Regardless of what decision a district makes on masking, as an example, some will be extremely unhappy and will be forced to “purchase” this product and abide by the rule.

There is an easy solution to this. Instead of one public school in an area, we could provide each family a voucher to send their children to a school of their choice, and then we could let the market work. With this type of system, many different schools would emerge, and suddenly a market for education would arise where individual families could select the school they want for their children.

Instead of one public school in an area, we could provide each family a voucher to send their children to a school of their choice, and then we could let the market work.

There are a lot of benefits to this. Instead of having government-run schools be the sole option for most families, there would be many schools competing for students (and the money that follows them). Parents who want their child in a school where all students wear masks could choose a school that requires masks, while others could choose differently. Parents who want prayer in school can send their kids to a school that includes prayer. 

For the same reason you’re not mad if your neighbor chooses a different car than you, you wouldn’t be mad about what your neighbor chooses for their child’s education. Everyone could make their own choice without forcing that choice on anyone else.

There are other benefits too. With competition naturally comes innovation. With a voucher system we’d expect improvements in schooling, mirroring the improvements we’ve seen in other products where there are market systems across the world.

The system should not cost any more to fund in the long run, since the state is just funding each student. But it would require a radical rethinking of how the school system is set up, with money following families instead of flowing into centralized districts by default. 

People live different lives, and purchase different things, because they hold different values. Markets are a key way to ensure one’s purchases don’t directly conflict with their values. But there is no market system with government-run schools. That should change. 

Matthew Rousu is dean of the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University. Views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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