NEPC Review: Is Public Schooling a Public Good? An Analysis of Schooling Externalities (Cato Institute, May 2018)

A report from the Cato Institute opens with Horace Mann’s well-known conviction that public schools are the bedrock of a democratic society – a public good that should be made available to all. Yet the report, Is Public Schooling a Public Good? An Analysis of Schooling Externalities, improperly conflates the civic and economic definitions of a public good. Although the report begins with Mann’s vision of the role of public schools as building a better society, it then misleadingly shifts the analysis to the economic value of public schools as a market-based “good” like steel or corn. The report relies on a false equivalence of the civic and economic definitions of a public good to advance a proposal for de-funding public schools and introducing a nationwide education savings account (voucher) program. While there is extensive research on the educational purposes of schooling, the Cato report’s limited review of this literature consistently misrepresents the meaning, scope and implications of this literature. The result is a portrayal of public schools as “agents of harm” for what appears to be an ideologically driven thought experiment. Even for those who might be in favor of vouchers, the report’s imbalance, flawed logic and limited research base render the report of no use to policymakers.

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