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Libertarians Have Right Diagnosis, Wrong Cure

Reason.com writer Nick Gillespie does an excellent job describing what is wrong with public education today in a post he wrote last weekend:

The heart of the problem is that traditional public schools are locked into a centuries-old model that, to greater and lesser degrees, treats all kids as essentially identical inputs that will be transformed into a desired, essentially identical output after 13 years of schooling. Think of it: Our schools still adhere to an agricultural schedule that even farmers don’t use any more. The result isn’t simply a waste of time and resources. It’s a morally horrifying waste of human potential. “Education is how people fulfill their humanity,” says school reformer Lisa Graham Keegan.

He goes on to note all of the technological advances that have occurred that tailor services to meet our needs:

In virtually every other part of our lives over the past 45 or so years, we’ve experienced a shift to mass personalization where our specific, individualized needs and desires are tended to. Shop online at Amazon and you’re nearly overwhelmed by a proliferation of choices for all sorts of goods. Go to a Starbucks and they’ll make any sort of coffee concoction you can think of—and they’ll give you free samples of stuff you didn’t even know was possible.

But in the last sentence of this paragraph, Mr. Gillespie goes off the rails:

Just about everywhere in our lives there is more choice—except for K-12 education.

Ah yes… CHOICE! Unsurprisingly for a libertarian blog site, choice and the free market are seen as the solution to every problem, including the seemingly intractable problem of the vicious cycle of poverty. According to the faith of the free marketeers, the way out of poverty, racial discrimination, and economic disadvantage is simple: give people choices and they will either make good ones and pull themselves up or make bad ones and suffer the consequences. As in the opening of his article, Mr. Gillespie is clear-eyed in seeing the problem (with the omission of one offending phrase regarding education’s “monopoly power”):

The public school system… has been slow to join the customization revolution and move past the practices of an industrial-era capitalism focused on creating massive amounts of identical products. This model, which served its purpose, is particularly devastating for children growing up in lower-income families, who generally lack the money to exercise school choice by moving into the “right” town or school district, much less pay for increasingly expensive private schools. The result is a system that is constantly shouting hosannas to democracy, class-mixing, and income mobility while replicating the existing class structure and serving the interests of teachers, realtors, politicians, and other powers that be.

But the solution Mr. Gillespie offers falls short of the mark:

It doesn’t have to be this way. As Lisa Snell has shown in a wide-ranging and influential body of work, tying school funding to a specific student—so-called backpack funding because money stays with the kid wherever he or she goes—and other forms of school choice such as charters open up possibilities for education unthinkable to generations of parents and taxpayers who experience public education as a non-responsive bureaucracy.

Indeed, since being introduced in the 1990s, publicly funded charter schools have exploded in number (over 6,000 exist) and popularity (about 5 millions students choose them) for the simple reason they cannot take students (and their funding) for granted. At its best, varieties of school choice give all students (and their parents) the market power to match their interests and needs to a school that can actually serve them.

Ah yes… market power! There are two overarching problems with this thinking. First and foremost is  casting public education as a “monopoly”. By promoting this notion Mr. Gillespie and his fellow “reformers” are viewing public schools as a shopping venue like Amazon or Starbucks without seeing the obvious flaw: children raised in poverty have never gotten on line to buy a product from Amazon nor seen a Starbucks that offers “… any sort of coffee concoction you can think of—and… free samples” in their neighborhood. If you’ve only shopped in the corner bodega you have no idea what choices exist in, say, Scarsdale. Worse, the “backpack funding” that states like Nevada provided in the name of choice would not give children raised in poverty the wherewithal to even enter an online shopping mall like Amazon or a fancy coffee shop like Starbucks.

Schools cannot be viewed as a monopoly any more than police or firefighters can be viewed as a monopoly. Police protection, fire protection, and public education are a public “good” designed to provide all citizens with an equal level of service. More than anything else, the commodification of public services is making our country more inequitable. The only way forward is to join hands and help transform our public schools break out of a “…centuries-old model that, to greater and lesser degrees, treats all kids as essentially identical inputs” by stopping the use of standardized tests that are predicated on precisely that kind of thinking.

 

 

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