The Root of Latin America’s Public-Education Failure
The shortcomings of the state-run school system are evident worldwide. Earlier this year, the Economist published an article titled “Those Who Can,” which notes that in Mexico, teachers inherit their jobs; in India, one quarter of all teachers don’t show up for work; and in New York, it’s almost impossible to fire a teacher, even if they are caught stealing at school.
Then there’s the unions, which only make the situation worse. In Chile, a three-week strike and several protests in the capital led to union leaders sitting down to negotiate with the Ministry of Education. This means union leaders are allowed to assume legislator roles and bypass the country’s democratic institutions.
The reasons why government-run schools are so bad are the same ones that drive the state’s inefficiency in other areas: soft budget constraints, political interference, limitations on faculty management, and incentives to increase bureaucracy.
Despite these failures being so well known that even most public-sector economics textbooks cite them, the state still insists on meddling in education, a favorite among those who wish to control other people’s lives.
In the region, this trend took off in the 1940s, when at the 1944 Latin American Education Ministers Conference in Panama, education was declared the state’s business, influenced by the mirage of social rights. It has led many to the unshakable belief that education is a right, which when combined with economic illiteracy, makes people think of it as a public good.
The idea is so widespread that comments to the contrary can spark great controversy, such as when former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said, in 2011, that education is a “consumer good.” The statement made the headlines across the globe, and Piñera’s words appeared in European and US media.
It became such a hot topic that once Piñera left office, and the socialist Michelle Bachelet was sworn in, her spokesman rushed to tell anyone that would listen that her government is certain education is a right.
Bachelet is wrong, however, and Piñera was right.
Education is not a right. A right only requires that other people refrain from performing certain actions. For example, all you need to secure property rights is that people refrain from preventing the owner from using and enjoying his property. On the other hand, the supposed right to education requires that a third party be forced to do something, namely foot the bill.
Imagine a society with only three individuals: in order to enjoy my supposed right to education, I must force one person to provide the service, and the other one to fund it.
Education is also not a public good. Education is not non-excludable and non-rivalrous, the basic features of a public good. Education is scarce, and clearly a consumer or economic good. Moreover, the marginal cost of educating a person is far from zero.
Keeping these concepts in mind is important. The wrong diagnosis will result in a wrong solution.
Architects use to say, “it’s better to make changes with an eraser than with a bulldozer.” However, if we keep diagnosing social issues based on misguided convictions rather than reality, we will soon have to hire hundreds of bulldozing crews across the continent.