Education is not a pure public good. The marginal cost of educating an additional child is far from zero; indeed, the marginal and average costs are (at least for large school districts) approximately the same. And there is no difficulty in charging an individual for use of this service.
Those who seek to justify public education in terms of market failure focus on the importance of externalities; it is often claimed, for instance, that there are important externalities associated with having an educated citizenry. A society in which everyone can read can function more smoothly than a society in which few can read. But there is a large private return to being able to read, and even in the absence of government support, almost all individuals would learn this and other basic skills. Indeed, most individuals would go far beyond that. The question is, given the level of education that individuals would privately choose to undertake were there no government subsidy, would further increases in education generate significant externalities? There is no agreement concerning the answer, but the case for government support based on these kinds of externalities seems, at best, unproved.

This was written by a very prominent American economist back in the late 1980s. He’s still alive and productive.

Who is he?

 

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