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Education is not like toothpaste

Will market competition really improve education?

As the policy debates over education “reform” continue, some of the key underlying issues – competing worldviews – are starting to emerge clearly. The first public introduction, last July, of Governor Snyder’s advisory panel on the school funding law provided one perspective (see upcoming article). They view their charge as making sure money follows the student, and their work relies on the idea that competition among many different kinds of education “providers” will result in the best outcomes.

Another perspective was offered in a blog post by noted education historian Diane Ravitch. In her post, she reprinted a reader’s comment which decried the “reform” direction of treating schools like businesses. In this model, schools that succeed will continue; those which fail to attract students will be shut down. The comment emphasized the personal and community cost of closing schools and rending relationships.

“This is what ‘educational reformers’ don’t seem to ‘get’ about education – education is not a business, it’s a relationship. Every time a school is closed, there are families being torn apart. …[N]ot just the families of students and parents – ‘families’ of teachers, custodians, secretaries, principals, lunch monitors and many others who make their lives in these schools…. Educational reformers and policy makers don’t seem to understand – or care about – the real, human damage that is done by their decisions. Our communities are not characterized by the businesses in them, or by the amount of profit generated within them – our communities are characterized by the number and strength of the human relationships formed between their members. And so are our schools.”

These differing views nicely bracket one of the essential conflicts underlying the whole school “reform” debate. The conflict is this: what system produces better outcomes – community decision-making, or market competition? The answer, of course, depends a lot on what kind of outcome you are trying to get.

Why the market doesn’t always work

The current “reform” emphasis on market competition ignores several serious downfalls of applying that kind of model to public education:

  • The dilemmas of private ownership;
  • Problems with adequate and accurate information;
  • The indirect “costs” of competition; and
  • Abandonment of the public purpose behind public education.

In the marketplace, businesses strive to offer products and services that are sufficiently attractive to consumers to gain them business but cheap enough to ensure an economic return to the owners of the business. (This, as others have pointed out, is the key problem with for-profit educational entities, since even legally their first responsibility is to their shareholders and not their “customers,” the students. It’s an unavoidable conflict of interest.) Private firms do not maximize quality; they balance quality and cost to maximize profit under current market conditions. This is how the system works, and in many domains it works pretty well.

However, there are conditions under which the market does not produce goods or services in the type or amount that society desires – economists call these “market failures.” Classic examples of this are public services like police, fire, and, yes, education. Even things like electric, water and gas services are typically either publicly owned or else operated as a heavily regulated public utility. Education is usually cited as a market failure because there is a public benefit to universal education that would not be given value in the private market. Education would not be as high-quality for most families nor as accessible if it were operated solely by the private market. Education also brings long-term societal benefits that are hard to measure financially and would not be incorporated into a private firm’s economic calculation.

To hear many education “reformers” speak about this topic, you would think that “market failures” were simply a figment of the liberal imagination. Sadly, they are the ones who are deluded.

Will last year’s test scores really tell you what you need to know?

Another facet of this debate is the question of competition – and competition need not only be among private firms. In the market, competition is presumed to generate the balance between cost and quality desired by consumers. This depends on two things:

  1. Consumers have sufficient, accurate information to decide which products most fit their needs; and
  2. Consumers can switch from product to product, provider to provider, without much disruption.

Neither of these things hold in the field of education. Parents, and students, have valid opinions about schools, but they are not able to judge what the ultimate impact of a school will be on themselves twenty or thirty years down the road. This is why long-term reputation is important for schools, since we must rely on a history of other people’s children to judge what is likely to happen to our own. Research shows that even standardized tests – at least as currently conceived – do not accurately capture the impact of a quality education on children. (See, for instance, the long-term results from the Perry Preschool study managed by the High/Scope program.) So the “grades” we have been giving schools are based on narrow criteria and do not offer the kind of information parents really want – will this school help my child live a fulfilled and comfortable life?

Institutions do matter

The reader quote addresses the second point. Market competition does not have its greatest impact by inducing firms to change their products or services; it accelerates the rise of firms with desired products and encourages the closure of firms that fail to please customers. Schumpeter called this the “creative destruction” of the free market. This may be OK for toothpaste manufacturers, or cell phone companies, but does the constant turnover of schools and education providers really end up helping individual students? I think that most researchers would say that this greatly damages a student’s chances for success. It also upends families and communities.

Finally, the last problem with the competition model is that outcomes are determined solely by those who are participating in the market at that moment. But we already recognize, as a country, the important public benefits of education. The reason behind democratic governance of public schools is to allow the entire community a say in the running of an institution that affects the entire community. This public aspect is entirely missing from the “reform” argument, for reasons that have more to do with ideology than with educational benefit.

Who benefits? We all do.

A basic, usually unstated, premise to the market-based approach is that education is really a benefit only to the student, and that the student and his or her family should therefore be in full control of what kind of education the student receives. But there is more to a public education than helping someone get a job.

There is a public purpose to education, and that purpose includes creating thoughtful citizens as well as productive members of the community. Preparing students for productive work is, of course, important, but equally important is preparing our children to be productive and valuable participants in our society and democratic governance. Being a member of a community requires more than simply mastery of skills for a job; it involves working with others and creatively solving problems that face the community beyond what is happening at work. Participating in democratic governance requires an understanding of core democratic values, how representative government works, and why the will of the majority must show respect for the priorities of the minority.

We know that the quality of life in our community depends not just on the kinds of jobs that are available but also on the kind of contribution to community and public affairs that we and our neighbors make.

The public purpose of public education

In short, we want our public schools to prepare our children to participate in their community and to thoughtfully contribute to the governance of the community. It is because we share those priorities that we all contribute to the funding and governance of public education, regardless of whether we have or will have children in school. Every member of the community is asked to contribute financially to support its schools, and every member of the community has the right to choose the people charged with governing the schools (school boards).

But this notion of a public purpose, as well as the idea of public governance, is missing from the “maximum choice” proposals now being prepared in Lansing. Existing charter schools (physical or online), and new types being proposed, have only the most tenuous threads of democratic governance.

For instance, most existing charter schools have their charters authorized by one of the state universities. In that case, the board of a charter school must be approved by the charter school office of the state university which is charged with overseeing the school. (When a management company is involved, it frequently will recruit and propose the initial board.) The charter school office is responsible, in turn, to the president of the university; the president is then accountable to the board of trustees of the university. Finally, the members of the board of trustees of the university are appointed by the Governor (with consent of the Senate), who is the first and only elected official in the whole chain of governance for charter schools. (The Univ. of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State, whose boards are directly elected, do not authorize any charter schools. A smaller number of charters are authorized by local school districts, ISDs, and community colleges, whose boards are, at least indirectly, elected locally.)

The true choice we face

So where does this take us? People who are suspicious of democratic governance embrace market-based changes, pointing to the benefits of the competitive market. Consumers can choose from an untold number of brands and varieties of toothpaste in most stores. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, at the 2012 Republican National Convention, called for education to be more like choosing a kind or flavor of milk at the supermarket. Shouldn’t we have a right to choose?

But there are different kinds of choice. In the private market, we choose by making a purchase from whatever is available. If we don’t like something, we “vote with our feet” and buy something else. We don’t, however, expect to ask the toothpaste manufacturer to change what they are doing.

In public affairs, we make choices in a different way. We vote for representatives whose job it is to hash out a solution from competing ideas and priorities. We participate in our communities to solve problems and make choices that reflect the values and priorities of our community. In short, we use our voice.

What will we choose? Will we settle for an education system that offers us choices, determined by others (sometimes with a profit motive), that focus on “transmitting” facts and narrow skills but which are divorced from our communities? Or will we choose to use our voice, to have schools built by and accountable to the people?

I know which path I would choose for my own children, and for my community. What would you choose?

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