Misunderstanding Markets cntd.
“[T]he folks at Harvard, Columbia, and Yale, are held accountable by … whom, exactly? Oh, that’s right: they’re accountable to their customers, who by virtue of their participation in a market that – ideally, at least – enables them to choose between different providers are thereby enabled to vote with their feet on the question of who it is that they think most likely to meet their needs at the right price.” ~ John Schwenkler responding to Freddie
What John is missing here is the very simple fact that education, like health care, does not operate in the market the way that say the restaurant business does. I go to eat at a local pizza place and the pizza there is no good, I don’t eat there any more. Pretty soon that pizza place goes under because the food sucked, the service was terrible, etc. and a new pizza place that started up a little while ago had better pizza, comparable prices, and better service. The market has spoken. We all have better pizza thanks to the free market.
See, pizza and food-service in general are good fits for free markets. Same with bikes and mp3 players. It’s pretty easy to say “I liked that, I want to buy more of it” when we’re talking about cheese burgers and fries. It’s a little trickier when we’re talking about education. For one thing, education has no immediacy. We don’t know what we’ve bought and paid for until the year has passed. Or maybe a few years. Or maybe a whole educational lifetime.
Also, the “consumers” of education are not the same people who actually benefit from it. Parents are, ostensibly, the consumers in question, while their children are the acual beneficiaries. This creates a disconnect especially at the younger grades. At the college level – as per John’s example above – it becomes a little easier to tell if the education you’re paying for is worth the price paid. But this misses another, larger point, which is that a lot of what people pay for at expensive schools is the exclusivity of those schools. The prestige. The ranking. And again, this works in the private education market because those are private institutions who can limit who gets in without having to bother with that pesky government writing their rules for them.
What would vouchers do to such a system? Well, for one, vouchers would involve the government in private business vis a vis subsidies. Look no further than the agriculture business to see how subsidizing private industry can be a very bad thing, and can absolutely destroy competition. Vouchers would also do a number on the prestige factor of any institution which bothered to use them, since the government would suddenly be involved in admissions, rules, etc. And if it wasn’t, well that would open the door to all sorts of abuse.
Private schools should remain a part of our education system, alongside public schools. But they should remain separate. The weird hybrids that would emerge from a subsidization program (vouchers) would be neither public nor private, but some strange amalgam of the two – not necessarily operating for the public good (rather profits), but also not a part of a truly free market, competing against other private schools.
In the end, as a society, we need to identify which aspects of our system are inherently public and what sort of commitment we should be making to them. Public schooling, unlike pizza, is one such area, because from the beginning we’ve decided that in America a public education system was essential for our liberty and vitality as a nation. What this means is that even if you put your kids into private school, some portion of your taxes are going to go to the public school system. If the private school is competitive enough to lure you away even at that added cost, so be it. The market has spoken. If they require a government subsidy to entice customers, then something is wrong. That’s not the market. That’s a failure of committal to the public sphere and a failure of a private school to do business in this particular market.
This is not about “statism” either. That’s a red herring. It’s about society which, like it or not, has public and private spheres. There is a public sphere because markets are tools of efficiency that don’t necessarily take into account the realities of poverty, etc. That’s why you get dollar stores in poor neighborhoods and Macy’s in wealthier neighborhoods. And that’s the sort of private education comparison you should think of when you talk about privatizing education. You’re going to get dollar schools, and not Harvards, where schools are already hurting the most. At least in a public system, as Freddie notes, some accountability comes into play – because schools are not good arbiters of their own success, and parents aren’t either. I’m sorry, but the kids who need the most out of their school often get the least out of their parents.
The “consumer” of their education is not always in it for the good of their kid. They might not be up to the challenge of determining what quality education actually is, because it’s not pizza we’re talking about here. It’s far more complicated. It requires a coalition of parents, teachers, schools, politicians, and yes, private industry as well, to provide for those who want more than the public school system provides. That’s fair, as long as the commitment to public education remains as well. And vouchers deny that commitment, plain and simple.