This week The Atlantic trotted out a bevy of soft-headed, undead arguments against school choice that rely on anti-capitalist fables, including the old “education is not a business.”
Tell that to the teachers unions, who profit handsomely from the $600 billion-per-year U.S. K-12 industry monopsonized by government. Pretending education is not big business is a lie to keep the taxpayer spigot open to its current hose. Teachers and bus drivers don’t work for free. They contract with schools to provide education services in exchange for money, regardless of whether that money comes filtered through government or directly from consumers. That’s called a market.
Author Jason Blakely is an assistant professor of political philosophy at Pepperdine University. He asserts that school choice initiatives like an innovative model Arizona’s governor has just signed into law are
part of a much wider political movement that…views the creation of markets as necessary for the existence of individual liberty. In the neoliberal view, if your public institutions and spaces don’t resemble markets, with a range of consumer options, then you aren’t really free. The goal of neoliberalism is thereby to rollback the state, privatize public services, or (as in the case of vouchers) engineer forms of consumer choice and market discipline in the public sector.
So far, so good, although it’s not clear what is “neo”-liberal about it, given that this idea has been around at least since Adam Smith, who wrote nearly 300 years ago. Then Blakely gives us a false choice: “the argument over ‘school of choice’ is only the latest chapter in a decades-long political struggle between two models of freedom—one based on market choice and the other based on democratic participation.”
Economic and Personal Liberties Are Related
Our options as free people are not either economic freedom or political freedom. We can have and do want both. In fact, the two are deeply related. That’s why it is entirely standard for free-market proponents to support both. After all, what is more democratic than millions of people freely making countless individual choices in social transactions conducted only when both parties think there’s mutual benefit, all without anyone else substituting their own preferences for that of the individuals transacting? What Blakely’s false choice reveals is that he is using “democracy” to in fact almost mean its opposite.
Especially in the American context, many people think of democracy as meaning something like consent. I agree to the rules that provide the broad parameters inside which I am free to do as I will. I voice that consent through many means, including the ballot box, but also through free speech, freedom of association, restraint of government’s interference in my affairs, and freedom to contract for goods and services I want to offer or obtain. In other words, the default is doing what I want without asking for permission from anyone.
But the way Blakely uses it suggests by “democracy” he means “subjecting individuals’ freedoms to the will of whatever majority happened to show up to the polls last time.” Sorry, sir, but in America citizens do not get to decide what everyone’s freedoms and rights are every time they go to the polls. That’s called mob rule, and it’s why our country is a republic, not a democracy. Self-government under the rule of law and ennumerated government powers emphasizes individual rights, while Blakely’s form of democracy leads towards collectivism. Self-government expressed in high individual freedom is highly likely to lead to a flourishing society, while collectivism time and again leads to shortages, rationing, sclerotic economies, and at its extreme the death of millions. While very few kids die inside American schools, the evidence is plentiful that on the whole they are seriously underperforming, and because they’re choked with central planning.
For example, three economists have estimated that if American kids’ math performance matched that of Canadian kids, all American workers could expect annual salary increases averaging 20 percent over the next 80 years. Further research finds that if all states’ academic achievement rose to that of the highest-achieving state, Minnesota, “The aggregate present value of gains from added [economic] growth would amount to some $78 trillion, or over four times our current GDP.” Now, remember, GDP growth is money in the pockets of American workers.
Since I don’t believe in measuring everything merely by economic gains, I’ll throw in that improved academic performance is associated with better life outcomes like longer-lasting marriages, interpersonal skills, and less drug use and teen pregnancy. Learning more is good for you, and good for society.
Try Collective Bargaining with 350 Million People
So, at this point, we should all be asking, “Holy schneike, how do we get improved schools?” Blakely’s answer is actually pretty vague — he says citizens should debate it and “center their questions around democratic freedoms” — but his anti-choice rhetoric provides cover for essentially doing nothing. He seems to favor anything that is arrived at through a sort of democracy as collective bargaining.
You subject your child’s education to collective bargaining and see how well that works out. I’m getting my kids in a good school now. What I want is for the portion of my taxes that goes for education spending to also not be subject to collective bargaining, because, again, collectivization increases costs and decreases quality, while individual liberties incentivize the competition that improves outcomes.
What a lot of Republican types don’t realize, however, is that the majority of their education policies do precisely the same thing — force families to negotiate with their school district, state, and the federal government to get the education they want. That’s what happens when they place any regulation on local schools. Republians prefer fascistic programs that run taxpayer money through quasi-private contractors, and Democrats prefer socialistic policies that run money through government programs, but both are different costumes on the same old central planning wolf. Both substitute bureaucrat and lawmaker preferences for those of individual families. That’s why regulation should be extremely minimal. But it’s not.
Just look at the education initiatives Republicans have pushed for over the past half-century: centralized curriculum and testing mandates, state takeovers of failing schools, chaining teacher ratings and pay to one-size-fits-all evaluations, and dramatically expanded federal power and programs that will expand further if the Trump administration goes for a nationalized voucher program like the kind Amity Schlaes recently promoted in a Forbes magazine article. They use market-sounding words like “accountability” and recently have been very enthusiastic about “choice,” but these are often false advertising.
The Education Politics Of Discontent
Rerouting more education funding through the federal government will accelerate the nationalization of American education. It’s that simple. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The feds will then have increased power to tell education providers what they must do to get the money, and there’s the rub, since federal power brokers are much harder, if not impossible, to influence than your wife or even neighbors.
It’s not only stupid but wrong to force parents to negotiate with the rest of the country to get their kids into a school they want, and that’s what federal programs entail. No wonder people are extremely dissatisfied with every federal social program. They pay the bills but have essentially zero control over what their dollars end up doing. Chronic helplessness is a route to despair, and that’s what the politics of centralization yields. Not surprisingly, the feeling was a top predictor of voting Trump.
This is because “the people” simply cannot weigh in on every single tiny thing about how a school runs — how much Teacher A should be paid, how many guidance counselors to hire, which math curricula to use, how to structure bus routes, etc. Even in a small public-school catchment everybody cannot “democratically decide” everything. So “democratic governance” is simply impossible even when centralized even just at the school district level. This is why paeons to “democracy” and “local control” are often pretense for taking away people’s self-government and turning control over to petty little dictators.
When a parent can choose where his child will go to school without having to buy a new house in another town and move into it, he has individual, not collective, bargaining power. Merely having the power to relatively easily switch schools is leverage to keep schools attentive to family preferences instead of bureaucrats’ preferences. Parents don’t have to do it; they just have to be able to do it. That is a real school choice.
Right now, most parents cannot access school choice unless they have enough disposable income. This is seen in the huge assymetry between the 42 percent of Americans whose top preference is a private school for their child versus the 10 percent who actually enroll their kids in a private school. It’s a real shame, both for them and for us all, because both the international and domestic evidence resoundingly finds that school choice improves civic engagement, tolerance for disagreements, social skills, and those math and reading scores. Higher regulations reduce these benefits.
This is really what is at the heart of the school choice debate. It’s whether individuals have the right to make their own decisions for themselves and their families, or whether even the pettiest of their decisions must be subject to other people’s control. When Americans choose the latter or our representatives force it on us, it leads not only to dissatisfaction, but lower academic quality and political weaponization of the curriculum.