Think of something as simple as a day at the beach. Drive along the Jersey Shore and you’ll see two kinds of beaches, public and private. You’ll see two extremes at each end. Private beaches, meaning members only, are well-maintained and uncrowded; they are exclusive to a few. On the other hand, the public beaches can have problems with bad behavior. Bathrooms are fouled, trash cans overflow, litter sprinkles the sand at day’s end. But everyone has access to them.
It’s a very old dilemma. Adam Smith posed it in Wealth of Nations in 1776. Which better maximizes the use of society’s resources, public or private ownership?
Schools are failing?
Depending upon who you ask, the public school system is either failing or thriving.
It is our unflinching conviction that the quality of life in the next 20-30 years will be driven by the success of the schools this very day. The crime rate, the unemployment rate, global competitiveness and much else.
The History Dr does not typically take sides, but we can say without a doubt that privatizing education will not improve schooling, because school troubles are not about who runs them or a purported lack of competition. Free markets can’t exist in education, not because there is some sinister union conspiracy, but because of practical realities.
Private school corporations, hired to run schools like businesses, have a near pristine record of failure. The success of students depends mainly on the commitment of the teachers, as well as the parents’ involvement in the child’s education. It’s the skill, brains and guts of the individual teachers that cause the plant to bloom, if it is planted in fertile soil.
How much students learn, grow and improve depends on the loving voice of their teacher, not corporate efficiency. The real difference is made in the classrooms with great teachers. I never liked your subject before, but now I do, are the sweetest words a teacher can hear.
Download our free lesson plan for history teachers on the U.S. Constitution here.
Schools are not businesses
In America, great confidence in free markets drives our thinking. We talk about running the government like a business, although businesspeople generally have had less than stellar presidencies. We hold up competition as the way to achieve both excellence and lower cost. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asks why can’t public schools be like Google or Uber and complains that schools are “monopolies.”
What Ms. DeVos seems not to grasp is that education is not a portable good; free markets cannot apply. Supply and demand curves are great principles for learning economics, but efficiency cannot be maximized without perfect information and ease of switching. If you want a new TV, you can make reliable, valid comparisons and buy a competitor’s brand with minimal effort.
Not so for schools. Ms. DeVos’ visit to an Ohio Republican school district in “cow country” shows this: What parents there want is more resources for the district, not more schools.
Here’s how we privatize solutions to common problems
It’s not just the schools having this debate:
- The power grid: When Superstorm Sandy thrashed the Jersey shore in 2012, the power grid went down for weeks. In the aftermath, some spoke of infrastructure improvements like building underground utility lines immune to falling trees. Which requires tax hikes. I spoke with individuals who resisted paying taxes for systemic upgrades. They said, “Look, I’ve got the $30k. I’ll buy a strong generator. Forget taxes, I’m taking care of my house.”
- Fixing a police force: Imagine a city with significant crime problems. One way to address that is to strengthen the public police department. But police need salaries, pensions and health insurance, making the public solution expensive. An alternative approach is for individuals in wealthy enclaves to hire private security and police forces for their neighborhoods.
- Health care: Do we believe that all Americans deserve health care whether or not they can afford it? The private solution says that health care is a marketplace commodity and you get what you pay for. Your pills, your bills. You’ll take better care of yourself if you pay for the consequences. Why should I pay for your bad lifestyle choices?
Are public or private solutions more in line with the nation’s purposes under the Preamble? Should we build up our public institutions or dismantle them?
Should I stay or should I go?
My personal hope is that the trend toward private education and homeschooling will be slowed; that people will remain in the public system rather than withdraw from it. And that more support (both moral and financial, because let’s be honest, nobody wants to de-fund their own kids’ schools) will make teaching a respected field again. Talent isn’t confined to well-to-do enclaves, it is sprinkled among all; and for our nation to thrive, that talent must be found and cultivated.
Only a strong public school system can do that.
If this post helped you understand something of our society and the influence of history, won’t you please share? And join our mailing list for videos, timely commentary, lesson plans and more. Get history healthy!