Whole Foods Education?

David Boudreaux wants to fix education badly. Stymied by unions and low standards, the economics professor makes a case in this Wall Street Journal piece for learning to be unshackled from government in order to be courted by capitalists. Sadly, in comparing public schools to supermarkets, he fails. To advocate that our children’s learning be improved by modeling it after the market forces that bring us produce is, while provocative, preposterous.

“Suppose,” he starts out, “that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education,” where there are free “public supermarkets” and for-fee “private supermarkets” that are “largely protected from consumer choice.” Well, I can’t. Supermarkets, Boudreaux wants you to believe, fill the same need in a society that education does. None of us can live without either. That we can’t compels us to want access to the very best. Fair enough. Trouble is, the ultimate goal of supermarkets is to consume, where as education aims to produce.

Education is part of our collective social contract. It prepares and provides the tools to the next generation. To leave that preparation and those tools in the hands of market forces might create exceptional learning for the few. In the long run, however, it would leave the majority on the margins. Given that the U.S. political and economic system have already been pulled to the extremes, that is a risky outcome, one that Thomas Hobbes hinted at long ago.

In the Leviathan, the English philosopher asked “what life would be like without government – each person has a right or license to everything in the world.” He concluded that it would be like war. May be. What it wouldn’t be like is shopping at Whole Foods. Competition advances both good and bad options. By its very definition, someone loses. Is that what we want for our children?

Last October, I traveled to three cities in Pakistan, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. In each, I was astonished to find that every building had its own power generator and security. Energy and safety are public needs that are normally provided by government. Unfortunately Pakistan’s doesn’t, forcing the country’s residents to opt for their own. No wonder Osama bin Laden went undetected. With everyone watching out for his or her own welfare, no one was overseeing the collective.

Public education in America is broken. As a “product” of it, I know. Reforming it is of paramount urgency. Market forces, however, isn’t the answer. That we have made it one for everything in society and masked it as “democracy” is, as David Brooks points out in today’s New York Times, lamentable. It is also dangerous. “Impatient with any institution that stands in the way of popular will,” or in Boudreaux’s case “shopping,” our elected officials “see it as their duty to serve voters in the way a business serves its customers.”

What is completely lost on us is that “the customer is always right,” is nothing more than a slogan. Our children’s future is not. We should not relegate it to being a shopping list where every wo/man is for him or herself. Doing so would only be a recipe for disaster.

My regular blog appears every Monday on: http://blogs.forbes.com/elmirabayrasli/

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 11, 2011 at 15:30 | Permalink

    You didn’t really scratch the surface of Don’s argument. He’s trying to get the reader to see some of the problems of public education are due to mechanism design, by taking the mechanism and looking at how it would look in another situation (much more stimulating than going all theoretical).

    For example, look at the way public education is funded — by local property taxes. Is it any wonder what happens — that those with higher incomes move away from those with lower incomes? The result is that public school education funding is very uneven, as is advocacy for better schools (those with higher incomes can afford to take time for this activity).

    If food was provided through the same mechanism you’d need see the same forces at work — voting with you feet.

    If we want to solve the public education problem the way it’s funded is an essential reform.

    I presume Don would say it should be funded with vouchers for the power and that education should be privatized. But an alternative is retain public education, but fund it at the state level.

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