The Market May Be the Wrong Place to Buy Our Children’s Education

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Sorry! / Gordon Joly


In 1983, a commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan declared the United States “a nation at risk.”

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken… while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.

We now had a problem needing a solution. In 1995, economist Milton Friedman proposed in “Public Schools: Make Them Private” what conservative politicians and philanthropists saw as their agenda for change:

Our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured. Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system—i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools.

From their perspective, the established network of local schools governed by local school boards and overseen by state and federal departments of education was the problem, and only radical structural change was a solution. What was needed was to change public education from a service provided by government to its citizens to one that would be provided like other goods and services in an educational marketplace that would empower of parents to choose the school that offered the education they wanted for their children.  Who else but a mom or dad knows what’s best for their children?  And how else can the wisdom and power of the marketplace be unleashed to invent the new schools we would need for our modern world?

The focus of change shifted from how to teach more effectively, mitigate the impact of race and poverty on schools and children, and properly fund education to changing the system in which public education was provided. This radical change of direction became a key plank for conservative politicians and was encouraged and supported by business leaders and their large foundations. “Choice” became a code word for privatization, and empowering parents served as a rallying cry that was hard to dispute. After an initial but unsuccessful experiment with tuition vouchers as the mechanism that would energize the transformation of public service to a private enterprise, reformers coopted charter schools as the core of their emerging educational marketplace. First begun as public education’s R&D department, where new educational approaches could be developed and tested before being rolled out to the public school enterprise, they became the way that new, independently managed but publicly funded schools would be created. From No Child Left Behind to Race to The Top to the just-enacted Every Student Succeeds Act, billions of tax dollars have fueled the development. Nearly seven thousand (6,723) charters currently operate in 43 states and the District of Columbia, serving 2.9 million students, or six percent of the total public school population. And large foundations, led by Gates and Walton, have fueled the growth of charters with billions dollars of additional funding.

Twenty years later, Milton Friedman’s vision has come a long way toward full realization, but the results have not been the significant improvement that was promised. While there are examples of high performing charter schools, on the whole they perform at best as well as traditional public schools, and some recent studies show them lagging behind. Those charters which show the most promise are often those that are more selective, serving fewer of the most challenging students—those with disabilities, those whose native language is not English, and those who live in poverty.

Have we not invested enough time and enough money for us to insist on more evidence that the solution works? Proponents may argue that the changes have not yet gone far enough and that it is too soon to see their benefit. We just need to stay the course. We need more time to get an even larger number of children educated in privately-run schools.

It is more likely that what we see is that the marketplace cannot overcome the societal forces with the greatest impact on educational success, such as school funding and poverty. And it’s clear that during this period of transition, traditional public education is being significantly weakened.

If the marketplace turns out to be the wrong framework for education, then what will we do once this is all we have in place to teach our children?

Public schools are still responsible for educating every child. The key word is “every.” While we have never insisted that public schools were the only places we would educate our children, we have made the societal commitment that every child would have a public school available and have the opportunity for an education of equal quality. The full force of the government has ultimately stood behind this promise.  When it became clear that not every school district was meeting this obligation, based on racial discrimination, the Supreme Court acted, ruling that unequal public schools were not the law of the land. Similar actions have tried to ensure that children with special needs were also not left out of the public classroom. Not all of these issues have vanished, but the commitment to fulfilling these and other obligations remains.

This guarantee does not always stand in the face of competition. Not every potential customer will have equal access to every product, nor will all potential customers have access to the same quality of product. Privately owned businesses are responsible to their owners and their bottom lines; responsibility to their customers is only a function of how that relationship translates to their balance sheets. Even when the economics are challenging, a traditional public school district has a responsibility to continue to teach the children in its district. But charter schools, whether for-profit or nonprofit, do not have this obligation. When the going gets tough, they can just get going. And when they close their doors, what happens to the children they were teaching? Today, as we are operating both traditional public schools and charter schools, the public schools must pick up the burden. But if Milton Friedman’s dream of a truly private system of public education becomes a reality, what happens then? Not a pretty picture.

We just need to look at the business strategy that built the fortune that created the foundation that is a major supporter of the educational marketplace. Walmart built its success on being able to dominate every location they entered. That domination usually resulted in many, if not all, competitors being forced out of business. And when Walmart closes its doors, it has no obligation to replace itself with another store. Its former customers are left to find new places to buy their groceries. And if the traditional public school was one of those businesses that were forced to close, where do those children go?

Without strong evidence that a market-based education system is better than the system it seeks to replace, why would we take these risks? Should we not be putting our efforts into attacking the things we know make effective education difficult?   Should we not be fixing the problems that may exist in the traditional public system before we no longer have it to rely upon?

  • Gayle

    I just spent two days facilitating focus groups at an arts based highly diverse public charter high school. What I heard from parents, students, and alumni was what a savior this school was for those kids. Kids who had been bullied, kids who had no friends, kids who didn’t walk the jock talk, gay kids, transgendered kids, theatre kids, nerds, who are normally excluded from the cliques and social life of big comprehensive high schools. These students found acceptance, community, purpose, caring and achievement at their charter … all qualities that don’t get measured on standardized testing which is the only measure that seems to matter in the public realm. And it’s not just this school… I’ve seen it over and over again when classrooms are small, adults care, teaching is good, and students feel that they matter, and that they care beyond themselves. After 20+ years of dealing with intransigent, ossified, large public schools, I’m glad that the starfish story is there …couldn’t save them all, but at least we saved that one.
    Yes, I want to save all kids and we could do that if we focused our laser beams on dramatically increasing funding for smaller schools, quality school leadership, excellent teaching, wrap around services, community-engaged students, enriched subjects, experiential based learning — public charters are not the enemy.