One argument often used to defend public schools and discourage school choice is that education is a “public good,” not a private one. Despite several attempts to dispel the idea that K-12 education meets the economic criteria for a public good, this trope is still kicking around.

But what do people even mean when they say education is a public good? In a recent article titled “Education is a Public Good, Not a Private Commodity,” Australian writer Stewart Riddle argues that education creates public, and not purely private, benefits. He doesn’t deny that education produces private benefits (like skills that students can use to get a good job), but points out that education also produces significant public benefits (like gains in public health and robust democratic participation).

In a similar article, “Education as a Public Good,” Tom Vander Ark suggest that the reason education is a public good is because education is supposed to advance goals (like ensuring equal opportunity and giving every student access to good schools) that are of public concern.  

So is education really a public good?

The easy answer is no — as long as by “public good,” we mean the same thing economists mean. For a good to be a “public good” in econspeak, it must be nonrivalrous (one person’s consumption does not diminish the quality of the good for others) and nonexcludible (it is impossible or next to impossible to exclude people from using the good).

Think of air, or a pdf file, or a neighborhood fireworks show. If I enjoy one of those things, that doesn’t take anything away from my neighbor’s ability to enjoy it. And my neighbor could not effectively exclude me from enjoying those things.

K-12 education has neither of these qualities. First, it is rivalrous (as long as you think class size affects educational quality, for instance, you believe education is rivalrous to some degree). K-12 education is also excludable. People can be, and have been, quite easily excluded from K-12 education; up until 1975, disabled children, for instance, were commonly excluded from receiving (public) education.

But clearly, the above authors (and most who say that education is a public good) do not mean “public good” the way economists mean it. Their concern is more about the idea that public education produces significant benefits to the public, and leaving it in private hands risks people consuming education in a way that puts those public benefits in jeopardy. People, they fear, might instead produce and consume kinds of education that would produce only private, and no public, benefits.

But even so, I still think these authors’ arguments don’t stand up, for 3 big reasons.

First, producing significant public benefits is not enough.

Every day before I go to work, I put on cologne. My cologne arguably produces more benefit to others (public benefit) than it does benefit to me (private benefit). Yet, people continue to buy cologne and perfume in order to produce the public benefit of smelling nice to others.

If cologne and perfume produce more public than private benefit, why do we buy and use them? I think it is because the public benefit of smelling nice to others is accompanied by a pretty nice private benefit of knowing that I am not offending others with my body odor (and the benefit of avoiding the embarrassment that would cause).

So, the question should be less whether my cologne or schooling produces public benefits, but whether it also produces the kind of private benefits that would convince me to consume the good.

In Stewart Riddle’s article, he mentions several public benefits that schools produce. He suggests that increased literacy rates lead to better public health outcomes. But individual students also benefit from their increased literacy, because literacy helps them get hired for jobs, read restaurant menus, use Facebook, and so on.

Riddle also mentions that education leads to decreased crime rates, but it is easy to see how individuals themselves are the primary beneficiaries of not having to turn to risky criminal behavior to survive. These and other public benefits are byproducts of individuals pursuing their own private benefits.

Second, even if education were a public good, that wouldn’t mean government must provide it.

Things that provide massive public benefits are provided privately quite often.

But if we are worried that people might not consume enough education for the public benefits to materialize, there are ways to remedy that without the education being provided directly by the state. A voucher system (with some stipulation that participating schools provide a type of education that generates those public benefits) would do.[1]

Lastly, calling education a public good is potentially dangerous.

Despite the many public benefits education produces, I believe it is potentially dangerous to tell people that the primary reason they are undergoing twelve years of compulsory schooling is so that their education will produce public, rather than private, benefits. Doing so treats the individuals being educated as instruments of the public good rather than as ends in themselves.

If we argue that education produces a strong economy that we all benefit from, it becomes fairly easy to rationalize the kind of tracking that steers individuals towards jobs that they may dislike, but that experts think “we” need. The more we believe the primary justification for education is the public benefits it produces, the less we allow individuals to receive the education they want rather than the education the government believes is good for them.

Does education produce public benefits? Absolutely. But I don’t think this is sufficient to argue that education therefore needs to be provided by the government or can’t effectively be provided by private organizations. Nor does it mean that education is a public good.

[1] As a side-note, conversations with folks who think education is a public good tell me that one of their concerns is that the quality of schooling not depend on a family’s ability to pay. In that case, the education is less a public good than a merit good, something we want to be available to all regardless of individual ability to pay. In that case, the government could still fund or subsidize education without directly administering it.