The Myth of the Free Market in Education…
What are American values? What does our country stand for? What are our founding principles? These are questions that are not easily answered, but that are a driving force in political debate today. Establishing a national identity for a nation that is so diverse and that has such a conflicting history is incredibly difficult. These challenges come to light when you look at issues like immigration (we're a nation of immigrants that has historically looked down on the most recent arrivals to our shores), separation of church and state (we use the word God in many documents and on our money, yet from the beginning of our nation multiple beliefs were present) and the role of government (we value the rights of the individual while recognizing the need for reasonable restraints on those freedoms and look for protection of our rights from the very government we seek to limit).
For some Americans the answers to these questions around our national values and norms are easy ones. They see the foundations of our society clearly and without question. Their values translate into a clear, concise and powerful political message of power and unity. It also limits the abilities of these individuals to see other perspectives and to compromise with others. The damage that this "black and white, with no gray areas" view of the world is capable of producing is on full display in statehouses across America. The "divide and conquer", "my way or the highway" approach to governing and policy making is tearing at the fabric of our society. Unfortunately, those of us who see the world differently are falling victim to our own empathy, or as Robert Frost said, "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel."
Debate on important issues is littered with examples of this. We see our political opponents throwing out simplified solutions or rhetoric around issues and too often they get away with it. We allow policy makers to fall back on empty phrases without calling them out and making them explain their reasoning. This allows them to manipulate public opinion by appearing to be logical, down to earth and patriotic. The reality is that this single-minded, simplistic view of the world isn't any of those things. It is time to redefine the words that we use and create a new vision for our society. One that is based on the values that our founding documents espouse, but that truly puts those values into practice.
The concept of the "Free-market" is one of these ideas that needs significant explanation and reevaluation. It is used to justify a wide range of political actions and policies. In fact it is probably more of a political term than an economic one. The term is thrown around casually and applied in situations where it shouldn't be. One of the clearest examples of this is in the field of education.
We have been hearing education "reformers" use the free market ideology to promote the expansion of privatization of our schools for years now. According to this theory, our public schools are "dinosaurs" filled with lazy, incompetent, unionized workers who don't have any motivation to improve their practice. Our public schools are failing our students and our nation and need competition. In the current system, this thinking goes, the innovative and educationally sound private schools can't compete because the public schools have a "monopoly". Parents and students deserve the right to make choices and to be subsidized in their efforts to find a "better" education in the "educational marketplace".
This thinking resonates well in the political arena. It has all the correct buzzwords that make politicians salivate. It contains the rhetoric of "freedom", "competition", "individual liberty", "fairness", and "equality" and puts complex educational problems into the simple economic equation of "supply and demand". A few quotes from the voucher debate in Wisconsin highlight this thinking:
“Parents are really the only people well-suited to make the decision of what’s the best match between a student and a school, not a ZIP code and not a bureaucrat,”
We support expanded educational options for parents through the use of school vouchers, charter schools, and innovative new programs centered on parental empowerment.
"A great, high voucher amount like this allows for increased opportunities for new entrants in the marketplace."
“[The] Joint Finance Committee made progress towards fairer funding of choice and charter students and they provided help to families struggling to pay private school tuition,”
"We're beginning to see a focus on vouchers as a way to really increase options for families."
However, once you cut through the rhetoric there are some glaring problems with using the marketplace to determine educational policies for our students.
Education is not a business. Businesses are selective in the products they make, the materials they use and the consumers they target. Our schools provide a basic service and this service should be available to all. We can't cut corners when it comes to serving our students and often those students least likely to succeed are the ones who cost the most. A business model doesn't work to serve our most at-risk and challenged students, no matter what their demographic group may be.
We are constantly hearing comments like this in the media, "Meanwhile, there’s no good reason the state’s public school districts can’t reduce their costs for facilities and staff (and the need for taxpayer support) in response to some portion of their students leaving for private schools. Businesses and other organizations make these kinds of responses to demand all the time." Yet, the argument is based on the false premise that we can reduce services to students while still providing necessary supports.
An education isn't a product. Providing a quality education for all students isn't something that should be driven by economic decisions. An education is a basic necessity for success in modern America and should be treated as such. Just like clean water, clean air, safe roads and a safe food supply, education is essential to the quality of life for our citizens. Treating education as though it were a commodity that can be packaged and marketed opens the door for unethical and questionable practices. In business the objective is to make as much profit as possible. This is done in many ways, some of which benefit the consumer and some of which don't. The argument that all market based decisions are driven by the consumer ignore the reality that many of the decisions made in corporate America today are not done with the best interests of the consumer in mind.
Support for the voucher movement and privatization of our schools follows the same pattern and decisions are not consistently made with the interests of students and families at the forefront.
Market driven practices don't provide equal opportunities or accountability to all. In our market system accountability is limited in scope. Businesses are accountable to the consumer to some extent, but not all consumers are equal. In some cases it isn't even the consumer who the business feels most accountable to. We see decisions made to benefit upper management, owners and stockholders at the expense of the consumer. If our educational system is to be driven by free-market principles it is clear that those groups that are currently struggling will see their difficulties magnified. Decisions about educational opportunities will be made based on cost/benefit analyses and our poorest, most disadvantaged demographic groups will been seen as a "poor investment".
Successful educational practices should be freely shared and made available to all. Our current system takes successful strategies and programs, packages them and then sells them for a profit. Publishing companies treat educational strategies like pharmaceutical companies treat a the drugs they develop. They market their programs and materials and get school districts to adopt their programs exclusively. Thus forcing educators to use these programs in place of ones that have been developed by educators themselves. New initiatives like the Common Core Standards are a gold mine for these companies. Just do an internet search of "Common Core Instructional Materials" and you will see where the money is being made. This shows how market forces create an opportunity for profit, but not a corresponding rise in educational opportunities. The profits of companies making standardized tests as a result of NCLB and RttT are another example of this.
Just like medical care, quality education is a necessity for a productive, high quality life. Also, just like health care, the market won't adjust itself to make these necessities available without significant pressure from educators and supporters of public education. Left to function purely based on the "free-market", educational opportunities for all will dwindle and we will see a multi-layered system of unequal quality become firmly entrenched as a permanent fixture in our society.
A high quality education is difficult to define and must be general in nature. In order for a business to succeed in the marketplace, it needs to have specific products, goals and consumers in mind. No single business can provide everything to everyone, yet that is what we are asking our public schools to do. Some people use this as an argument for school choice and private schools that focus on a specific demographic group, or a specific content area. However, education is a very different thing than a consumer product. Students must be well-rounded and prepared for a constantly changing workplace. Specialization at a young age may work for a small number of people, but fails to provide the flexibility needed for long term success in most cases. In the same way, the ability to interact with a variety of types of people from different demographics is an important skill that can be nurtured in integrated public schools.
This reality means that we are providing a resource that can be used, not a product that can be quantified and assigned a specific value to. Art, music, physical fitness, and the liberal arts are just a few examples of programs and topics that don't necessarily translate directly to a career or economic enterprise. However, a broad base of knowledge provides more opportunities and a higher quality of life in the long term. By trying to turn education strictly into a vocational or career training program we eliminate opportunity for our students.
The efforts to quantify the value of an education are demonstrated in the importance we attach to jobs in education.
This same mindset applies when we begin to develop standards and try to make all students "career and college ready" from the earliest grades.
Freedom of choice in America today is a convenient term that lacks meaning. The ability to make choices without significant government regulation is the cornerstone of the free market, yet "choice" is a loaded term that is inconsistently applied. The most obvious aspect of this shows up when one looks at the arguments around women's control over their bodies and health care. On one hand the family (ostensibly including a mother) deserves the right and freedom to choose a school, yet that same freedom doesn't apply to the basic fundamental freedom to make decisions around reproductive rights. Whatever your personal views are on abortion, contraception and other similar issues, once you bring in the idea of freedom and choice into a discussion you need a consistent definition that applies in all situations.
Economic decisions are based on what society values. Supporters of the marketplace in education would argue that freedom of choice applies only in economics, not in morally based decision making. Economics is a neutral "science" governed by laws (like supply and demand) that remove morality from the equation. Individuals deserve choice in the marketplace, but this same level of independence doesn't apply in decisions around issues in other areas. This implies that economic decisions don't have significant moral implications. However, in a capitalistic, consumption driven society, economic decisions may be the most telling in terms of morality. We spend our money on what we value and we clearly don't value education highly in America today.
There are many examples of this lack of commitment to education in our society. One is the fact that educators (public and private) are not compensated at a rate that compares to individuals in other fields where similar amounts of education, training, professionalism and time commitments are required. Educators across Wisconsin are facing the reality that they may not be able to be a part of the middle-class doing what they love.
Of course educators aren't the only ones who face these choices. The politically motivated attacks on all public sector workers in Wisconsin have significantly harmed many in our state. Giving back 1% when you've taken 7% or more is a poor way to treat employees.
None of these arguments are in any way implying that our public schools don't have lots of work to do. We have significant gaps in achievement and opportunity. We have areas where we can be more efficient in our use of resources. We can improve our practices and make our schools more accessible to all students. Student outcomes can always be elevated.
However, to put forward false, market based "reforms" in the name of American values are damaging and illegitimate claims. The intent behind these "reforms" isn't to improve educational outcomes and opportunities for all, but rather to install and protect a "separate and unequal" system that benefits the few. Our public schools have the personnel, the expertise, the desire and the highest level of accountability that's necessary to achieve the goals that our founding documents put forward. We need to commit as a society to addressing the needs of all students through a powerful and well support public education system.
Why are educators so concerned about politics these days? Actually, a better question might be, why are politicians so concerned about educators these days? In an ideal world, educators would be free to go about the business of preparing our young people for the future. We would be supported, respected and treated as professionals who are capable of performing our jobs without constant oversight and direction from people who don't have much (if any) expertise in our field.
In today's political climate educators can ignore politics at their own peril. After all, it is politicians who have reduced or eliminated our rights to collectively bargain. It is politicians who have forced us to adopt standards that have reshaped the educational environment. It is politicians who have created the high stakes testing environment that students and educators must wallow in. It is politicians who have promoted an expansion of a voucher system that hasn't worked effectively to promote student achievement. If we don't unite to act as educators in the political realm it is clear that the pace and volume of these politically motivated "reforms" will only accelerate.
I know many educators who are "burned out" on politics and political action. Many of us feel helpless in the face of these well coordinated attacks on our public educational institutions. However, we can't simply hope that others will defend us, or that our political leaders will follow the proper course. We've seen political leadership from both parties fail to adequately support and defend public education.
We are living in a time when the very foundations of democracy are under attack. The most basic function of a citizen in a democracy is to cast a ballot, and this fundamental core of our system of government is being assailed.
Public schools are another cornerstone of our society. We provide a place where all citizens, regardless of race, religion, social or economic class can come together to learn. We are accountable to the people of our community and we serve them proudly. Part of our service is to fight against those who would seek to dominate our nation and manipulate the system for their own gain. Now is the time for us to become more active in our efforts to unite together with members of our community and educate our citizens about what is happening and what they can do to regain control of our social, economic and political systems.