Economist Asks, Why Can’t Public Schools Serve Poor People Better, Like Supermarkets Do?

In today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription only), George Mason economics professor Donald J. Boudreaux defends the greatness of the free market, and argues for privatizing education, by posing a

thought experiment

: “Suppose that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education.”

The result, according to Boudreaux, would be a system crippled by monopolism and union greed:

Being largely protected from consumer choice, almost all public supermarkets would be worse than private ones. In poor counties the quality of public supermarkets would be downright abysmal. Poor people—entitled in principle to excellent supermarkets—would in fact suffer unusually poor supermarket quality.


In reality, of course, groceries and many other staples of daily life are distributed with extraordinary effectiveness by competitive markets responding to consumer choice. The same could be true of education—the unions’ self-serving protestations notwithstanding.

In reality, of course, here is the Google Maps result for “Whole Foods” for the Washington, D.C. area, in which Donald J. Boudreaux teaches university-level economics:

The part with the markers on it is the part where the people with money (and white people) live.

Maybe the thought experiment works better when it’s turned around. If public education were run like supermarkets, as the free market runs supermarkets, rich people would enjoy access to an assortment of the freshest, highest-quality education, while poor people would live with lousy schools, or no schools at all. School companies would

redline the ghetto

and refuse to open stores there. The Department of Education would have a

county-by-county online atlas

to locate ”

education deserts

,” areas where schooling was effectively unavailable.

Actually, our public-education system looks a lot like that already. (Perhaps it’s not the government monopoly that’s to blame?)

Holding up the supermarket industry as a model for the equitable distribution of life’s necessities is like holding up the NFL as a model of gender parity. Evidently, you can become a

professor of economics

—and can write on economics for the opinion page of the nation’s leading business newspaper—without knowing anything at all about how and where the most basic, everyday goods might be bought and sold in America.