Parental choice has historically offered two distinct benefits. First, it has driven schools to offer effective instruction in the subjects and skills parents value. On the whole, parents have made considerably better educational choices for their own children than state-appointed bureaucrats have made for the children of others. This superiority has manifested itself in countries both ancient and modern, among rich families and poor, among educated elites and the illiterate lower classes. While imperfect, parents’ decisions must be compared to the real world alternative of still-less-perfect bureaucratic decision-making, and not to an idealized system in which government education authorities flawlessly execute their responsibilities like Plato’s benevolent and all-knowing philosopher king.
Though not all parents are equally well-informed in their education decision-making, markets allow the decisions of the best-informed consumers to benefit not only themselves but their less-informed fellow citizens as well. Each school in a competitive market has to offer the most effective services it can, at the lowest possible cost, or risk losing the business of every family that takes the time to compare prices and outcomes. As a result, even parents who do not spend weeks or months in faithful comparison shopping benefit from the efforts of those who do.
The second advantage of parental choice is that it has helped to avoid social conflicts over the content of instruction. Some of the opposition to parental choice comes not from the belief that parents won’t get what they want under an education market, but rather from the fear that they will. These critics assume that a diverse market of educational options is socially inferior to a uniform system of public schools because they believe that real educational diversity would Balkanize society into warring factions. That fear is not supported by the historical record. Throughout the centuries, far more social conflict has been caused by educational coercion than by educational diversity. The reason is straightforward: When all citizens are forced to pay for and/or attend an official public school system, all wish it to reflect their own views and to repudiate views they oppose. In pluralistic societies, that is impossible. Instead, disparate groups fight each other for control of that system, with the victors imposing their views on their fellow citizens. This educational coercion causes hostility among groups with divergent views, who then attempt to wrest control of the system for themselves. An endless cycle of conflict is thus created. Education systems that allow families free choice, and that otherwise avoid compelling citizens to act against their convictions, avoid this cycle of conflict.