The Public School Myth

Published March 20, 2018

Opponents of education choice like to prophesize doom when the subject is raised for debate. Their principal argument seems to be that if alternatives to traditional government schools (e.g. charter schools) are permitted to exist and to compete, they will “rob” those traditional schools of needed funds.

Put aside the fact that this argument admits there is a natural demand for such alternatives. It suggests — if indeed it doesn’t say so outright — that certain schools are simply and arbitrarily entitled to a given community’s resources, legally privileged to be exempt from competing or improving.

Justification for this legal privilege is conspicuously absent, apart from the baseless charge that introducing parental choice and competition are bad for public education. Why would that be? Public education should simply strive to deliver the highest quality education to the largest number of our children, using whatever means and methods are best suited to the situation on the ground. In this context, choice should be treated not as a threat to public education but as an opportunity to strengthen it.

Opponents of school choice invert the order of priorities: The schools — teachers, administrators, the buildings themselves — should exist only to serve the parents and students in the community. If they are failing to fulfill the duties associated therewith, as judged by the parents, then those parents ought to have options they can exercise. In almost any other area, on almost any other question, this position would be uncontroversial; we would naturally think: our kids, our money, our choice. But those with government-granted special privileges never want us to have a choice. The government school system as we know it — failed, overpriced, stifling, authoritarian — has become a means to self-serving ends, rather than an end in itself.

That the institution should begin to adopt such a culture of self-preservation, that it should begin to serve itself (rather than those who use its services) should not surprise us. This is the path any bureaucracy will follow as a matter of course when it is no longer held to account by the forces of competition and free exit. Public schools believe they are entitled to hold parents and students captive. “We shouldn’t have to adapt or adopt cost-saving measures,” they cry, “because the fiscal state of the public schools hangs in the balance.” But this amounts to nothing more than an attempt to preserve the status quo at all costs, rather than putting students’ education first.

They say: “Children should not have a price tag.” But they mean: Parents shouldn’t have a meaningful say in how their children are educated, because teachers unions and government functionaries know better and have an unassailable right to your tax dollars, no questions asked, no strings attached. How dare you have the impudence to threaten our sacred monopoly on schooling your children!

Allowing interest groups, such as teachers’ unions, to stop progress toward education choice is to grant a monopoly the legal power to veto would-be competitors, to protect its position not by providing a superior service at a better price, but by force.

The education choice movement does not endorse the strange proposition that children should have a price tag, whatever that might mean. Instead, it accepts the simple fact that educating a child does have a price tag and that, therefore, tax-paying parents ought to enjoy some autonomy and choice. It is confused and inaccurate to conceive of the student as the product, to which price tags would be applied; she is actually, through her parents, the consumer of the product. Schools and teachers are providers of a professional service and ought to be subject to competitive pressures like other trained professionals. In the same way, parents should enjoy the kind of control that comes with being a client or customer.

Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education argues that, “parents need a guarantee of high-quality schools, close to home, for every child.” Yet such “guarantees” will remain empty promises unless parents have an enforcement mechanism, some way to compare alternatives and leverage the power of choice.

It is interesting what we can do with words. Call it “public” education and at once the opponents of parental choice get to align themselves with that numinous entity, “the public” — as if they don’t have their own private, special interest in precluding the entry of competitors. In reality, there is no “public” they could represent; we are all individuals with our own values and preferences. This is a reality education choice attempts to grapple with meaningfully, rather than piling up empty bromides in order to preserve an unearned privilege.

[Originally Published at RealClearEducation]