School-to-Work and the Surveillance State

Published December 28, 2013

Politicians are once again presenting us with a crisis they say only government action can solve: “Too many students are graduating unprepared for the workforce.” They point to the one-quarter of U.S. students who drop out of high school and the one-third who enter college needing remedial classes. The solution, says Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, is using big amounts of student data to align education systems with the “needs of the marketplace.”

That’s the initiative she says she will spearhead as chief of the National Governors Association (NGA), a group whose main function is lobbying the federal government and publishing buzzword-laden press releases.

To put this in simple language, a Republican governor wants to expand the surveillance state in order to foster a planned economy. She must have gotten that idea from China, the country NGA touts as a model for education and workforce development. China, of course, got that idea from Marxists. To Marxists, humans do not have souls and self-determination; we are merely units whose most significant attribute is our ability to perform labor and produce.

The United States is supposed to be different from that. Our system is designed to allow the people to form and manage our society ourselves, through self-government at every level, individual through national. The purpose of public education in our country is not worker training, exemplified by the current mania for “college- and career- readiness.” Read any state constitution and you’ll find it justifies public support for education as a means of securing self-government, not worker bees. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman wrote in his famous essay on education, public education exists to foster citizenship, because without it our country cannot survive. This benefits every American, whereas workforce training primarily benefits the individuals who choose it. It is unfair to demand other people pay for such private benefits.

Employers are right to complain about an education system they help sponsor that routinely graduates young adults who can barely read or write. But so do all citizens, and we have a prior and far more important claim on that system. Education that cultivates young people as self-governing citizens will also cultivate in them the characteristics businesses prize, such as literacy, a broad core of knowledge, analytical thinking, and communication skills.

Also, as education scholar Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas notes, turning schools into job-prep factories privileges existing employers over future ones. When today’s kindergarteners graduate, after all, they will enter a world that includes hundreds of unforeseen jobs and industries, for which they cannot possibly be trained now. Their education should not trap them into service to employers whose industries are outdated.

Finally, markets don’t need vast government data systems to align workers to “workforce needs.” Free markets efficiently and automatically convey, through prices, supply, and demand, what people want without any central planning. The economist and philosopher Adam Smith famously called this “the invisible hand,” which communicates millions of pieces of information to those who need it, far more efficiently and accurately, and far less intrusively, than central planning. We don’t need bureaucrats to plan our economy—we need them to get out of the way so we can order the economy ourselves.

This is the crux of the debate between capitalism and communism, and it’s breathtaking any governor could be so ignorant of it. Leaders like Fallin are setting us up to lose the American system of self-government our schools exist to preserve.


Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.