Undoubtedly, poverty can pose an obstacle to attaining a quality education, just as poverty can pose an obstacle in the attainment of many other values. But obstacles are simply that, and they can be overcome without government intervention.
Today, education is a virtual monopoly of the government. While home schooling and private schools have grown in popularity in recent decades, public schools remain the dominant source of education for most Americans. Indeed, approximately 85 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend public schools, primarily because these schools are “free” to attend. Of course, these schools are not free—their costs are borne by taxpayers, which includes parents and non-parents alike. Because they are forced to financially support public schools, most parents cannot afford the expenses associated with private schools or home schooling, despite the fact that, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Independent Schools, only 39 percent of those polled would send their children to public schools if cost and proximity were not factors.
In other words, while the vast majority of parents send their children to public schools, those schools are not their preference. Taxation to support public schools effectively eliminates a meaningful choice for many parents, and prevents them from acting as they would choose if they had complete control over their money.
Prior to the Civil War, public schools were virtually non-existent. As educator Robert Peterson writes, most young children were taught at home: “Home education was so common in America that most children knew how to read before they entered school.” It wasn’t necessary for public officials to dictate the curriculum, compel school attendance, or force citizens to pay for public schools. Parents recognized their responsibility for educating their children and acted accordingly. Combined with vocational training received at home, for many colonial Americans a formal education was simply unnecessary. For those who did desire additional education, churches and private schoolmasters offered an abundance of choices. Peterson writes:
Historical records, which are by no means complete, reveal that over one hundred and twenty-five private schoolmasters advertised their services in Philadelphia newspapers between 1740 and 1776. Instruction was offered in Latin, Greek, mathematics, surveying, navigation, accounting, bookkeeping, science, English, and contemporary foreign languages. Incompetent and inefficient teachers were soon eliminated, since they were not subsidized by the State or protected by a guild or union. Teachers who satisfied their customers by providing good services prospered. One schoolmaster, Andrew Porter, a mathematics teacher, had over one hundred students enrolled in 1776. The fees the students paid enabled him to provide for a family of seven.These schools allowed colonial Americans to attain the education they desired without government intervention. The desire to profit motivated educators to provide the types of classes that individuals wanted, not those demanded by public officials. Both educators and students were free to pursue their own self-interest.
Despite the success of the market in providing educational services, in the mid-nineteenth century many Americans began to demand public schools. Much of the justification for establishing public schools was to meet the needs of the poor and to help immigrants assimilate. The market was considered a failure because some individuals were not receiving the education that others deemed desirable. The fact is however, that the market was providing educational opportunities to these groups. According to Peterson: “In 1767, there were at least sixteen evening schools, catering mostly to the needs of Philadelphia’s hard-working German population…. There were also schools for women, blacks, and the poor. Anthony Benezet, a leader in colonial educational thought, pioneered in the education for women and Negroes.”
In colonial America for example, education was a favorite form of philanthropy for Quakers, and “the poor, both Quaker and non-Quaker, were allowed to attend without paying fees.” Such educational philanthropy is not limited to colonial times: Oprah Winfrey has donated nearly $2 million to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta and Providence St. Mel in Chicago. Both schools serve poor, inner-city children. Such examples demonstrate that those who are concerned about education for the poor have the opportunity to provide voluntary financial support to schools for the poor.
However, the poor do not need to rely on alms and philanthropy. If individuals are free of government coercion, entrepreneurs find innovative ways to provide the values desired by consumers, education included. A study by James Tooley, a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle in England provides a compelling example.
Tooley conducted a two-year study of education among the poor in five cities in Nigeria, Kenya, China, Ghana, and India. His study focused on differences between public and private schools in the poorest areas of his selected cities—areas that lacked indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, and paved roads. What he found was remarkable.
For example, in Hyderabad, India, 76 percent of all schoolchildren attended private schools. Despite the fact that public education was available, many of the city’s poorest parents chose to send their children to private schools, even when then had to pay tuition. Tooley reported similar findings in the other cities: “the poor have found remarkably innovative ways of helping themselves, educationally, and in some of the most destitute places on Earth have managed to nurture a large and growing industry of private schools for themselves.” The students in private schools in Hyderabad had an income of less than $30 per working household member, compared to an average of $46 per month for the city. Tooley’s findings dispel the myth that the poor need government assistance in order to educate their children.
The competitive nature of private education directs schools to provide the curriculum and quality desired by consumers. If the schools fail to do so, parents are free to move their children to a better school. As previously noted, taxation virtually eliminates this option for most Americans.
As we have seen, both historically and currently, the private sector can and does provide ample educational opportunities, even for the poorest of the poor. More importantly, private institutions cannot rely on coercion to obtain funding or customers, but must meet the freely chosen desires of parents and students. In recognizing the right of individuals to act according to their own judgment in the pursuit of their own values, a free market in education is moral. The examples in this article demonstrate that it is also practical.
“Public Knows Features That Make a Quality School”, Council for American Private Education, January 2000, http://www.capenet.org/Outlook/Out1-00.html#Story1
 Robert A. Peterson, “Education in Colonial America”, The Freeman, September 1983, Vol. 33, Issue 9, http://www.thefreemanonline.org/columns/education-in-colonial-america/
 James Tooley, “Private Schools for the Poor”, Catholic Education Resource Center, http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/education/ed0319.htm