Liberalisation in education necessary for economic growth

Martin van Staden is the editor of the Free Market Foundation book, ‘Radical Economic Transformation: The Legal Route to Economic Freedom.’ Visit

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This article was first published on BBrief on 15 November 2022

Liberalisation in education necessary for economic growth

Education has been repeatedly identified as one of the most important ingredients to ending the majority of South Africans’ cycles of poverty. Yet it is the government’s stranglehold over education – which it maintains precisely in the name of “social justice” – that ensures general education retains a poor quality and only contributes to the cycle. South Africa should be a world leader in the liberalisation of education.
This is according to the authors of
Laws Affecting Small Business: Schooling, which is part of a series of research booklets published by the Free Market Foundation. The LASB booklets cover eight areas of government legislation and regulation that harms and hinders the establishment and growth of small enterprises in South Africa. 
It is only by virtue of legislation and other forms of government intervention that private enterprise in South Africa finds it so difficult to break into the education field. The government’s insistence on standardisation ensures that, among other things, parents and children cannot benefit from the best methods available worldwide for teaching literacy, numeracy, communication skills, and specific income-earning skills.
Had education been wide open to competition, there would be greater discipline on providers to improve their quality as they seek the favour of parents. Government could even introduce educational vouchers in the place of its massive basic education bureaucracy, which would enable poor parents to also choose where to spend education money.
Among the LASB: Schooling authors’ radical, but necessary recommendations, are the repeal of all compulsory schooling laws, repealing the requirements that private schools acquire government’s permission to operate, issuing vouchers so that parents can freely choose where their children will be schooled (whether at government or private schools), abandoning standardised curricula, and leaving homeschoolers in peace.
Compulsory attendance laws seem benign on their face, but they are the very foundation of the one-size-fits-all educational approach that leaves so many children behind. The State is forced to define what “schooling” means and, as a result, other forms of education are discounted, and even private schools are inevitably forced into the government’s standardisation of something that must be dynamic and ideally suited to each individual child.
As the authors argue, in the absence of compulsion, learning institutions – particularly those run by small businesses trying to offer personalised experiences to individual children – would go out of their way to offer parents a choice of high-quality and competitively-priced learning environments for students. 
There is, furthermore, no need to worry that children will simply go uneducated. The economic historian EG West notes, for instance, that prior to compulsory schooling being introduced in Britain and America, most kids did attend school anyway. This should be clear to everyone who understands that the supermajority of parents want nothing but the best for their children, and they certainly do not require government interference in this enterprise.
Government vouchers for the indigent, however, could be an effective method in a poor society like South Africa’s to ensure the current education budget is put to good use. The national education budget should be distributed proportionally to all parents with school-going children. Parents may then use that money to choose whether their children attend government or private schools, anywhere in the country. 
Under such a regime, government schools, too, must be given the necessary autonomy to compete for parental money (since they will no longer be receiving money directly from the State) with other government schools and private schools. A race to the top for high-quality education is the conceivable result of such a reform.
It is not lost on the authors of LASB: Schooling how radical these proposals are. However, South Africa finds itself in radically precarious times, with an overbearing government that has already sapped the economy of its lifeblood. 
Playing it safe, policy-wise, is reckless. Radical transformation of our thinking is necessary if we are to escape the dire economic situation we find ourselves in. Enabling an explosion of economic activity in the field of education could play a valuable role in getting this done.
The LASB booklets represent one-third of the Free Market Foundation’s book,
Radical Economic Transformation: The Legal Route to Economic Freedom, which proposes a comprehensive reform package that will get the South African economy prospering.   

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