I've written before about how the free market is a terrible match for public education (here, here and here, for example).
The actual free market (or as we actually experience it in America, the free-ish market) offers plenty of examples of the such a market wouldn't really serve education well at all. There are myriad examples of the triumph of marketing over quality, or market forces discouraging excellence, but for the moment, I'm going to ignore all of that.
Instead, let's consider one way in which the educational "marketplace" differs from every other free market arena-- involuntary customers.
We recently shopped for coffee makers at my house, so let's use them as an example. The coffee gadget market has a wide range of choices, ranging from cheap crap with a limited lifespan up to really expensive machinery that will carry itself to planned obsolescence with style and grace. But they all have one in common-- they are all made to be marketed to people who want to drink coffee.
But what would happen if Congress passed the Personal Use Coffee Maker Act of 2015, requiring every single person in the country to have a working coffee machine?
PUCMA would have little effect on people already owning a perfectly good coffee maker. But now the market would expand to include people who don't actually want to drink coffee, and wise coffee maker makers would find ways to market to that group as well.
Here's a coffee maker that makes verrrrry tiny cups of coffee, so you don't have more than spoonful to drink. Here's a coffee maker whose main feature is that it looks pretty on your counter. Here's a coffee maker that is an absolute piece of useless crap, but it is as cheap as we could make it and still be PUCMA compliant. Here's a coffee maker that actually makes decent hot chocolate. This one is actually a smoothie machine. This one makes a great cheese sandwich.
When a market is expanded to include people who don't actually want your product, market forces not only fail to foster excellence, but they actually foster crappiness.
I believe in the power and importance of a K-12 education; that's why I chose the work that I do. But I recognize that not everybody sees value in pubic education. I have met parents who would like their children to attend a school that never, ever gives any assignment that requires work outside of school. I have met parents who would like their children to attend a school where only sports matter. I have met parents who would like their children to attend a school that only requires the child to show up only a few days out of every week. In a free market education world, could I make money marketing a school for those parents? You bet I could. Just as I could make money marketing a school that will never challenge a child's beliefs with science, or a school devoted to The One True Religion (whichever one will give me the best market share), or a school that lets them sit at home in their PJs and never do school work unless they're in the mood.
In fact, the one free market option that rarely comes up in these discussions of the power of competition in a free market is the option to not be part of the market.
You want to make a true free market for education? Repeal all mandatory school attendance laws.
Of course almost nobody wants to do that because we recognize that it would not only create chaos for the schools and, worse yet, a long-term mess for our whole society because (as I've said many times) parents are NOT the only stakeholders when it comes to education.
We don't repeal mandatory school attendance laws because it would be bad for society as a whole. Why would it be any better to allow a system in which a child could choose Might As Well Not Be Bothering To Attend High School? I'm thinking of the K12 cyber charter ads in PA that made the pitch, "Pick a school that won't get in the way of your kids' sports schedule" or asked "Is your child happy in school." Charter and voucher fans can say, "Oh, but there are no schools out there pretending to offer an education while marketing to students and families who want to look like they're doing the school thing without having to deal with any of the stuff they find annoying," and that's possibly largely true, but of course, given the lack of oversight in most states, we don't really have any way of knowing, do we?