Public schools, public supermarkets

13664_thumbby Don McFadden

Terry M. Moe, professor of political science at Stanford University, succinctly summarizes the history of our public school system in his 2008 paper Beyond the Free Market: The Structure of School Choice:

From its modern origins in the early decades of the 1900s, America’s public education system was designed to be a purely governmental system in which markets play no role at all. There was simply no attempt to take advantage of what markets might have to offer. Instead, the idea was that educational services would be produced by government-run schools, which would act as local monopolies within their own geographic areas. Children would be assigned to their local schools. And the schools, along with every aspect of educational policy, organization, and practice, would be democratically controlled through a complex hierarchy of political officials and educational bureaucrats.

Schools may appear to be “democratically controlled,” but in the end parents have little say in the education of their children (e.g. where and when the teaching occurs, who does the teaching and the content of the curriculum). The ultimate power rests with the rather amorphous “education establishment” although there is a thin veneer of local control (essential for implementing the establishment’s directives) through local school districts.

This, of course, is the way it should be we are told.  The assertion that “education is much too important to be left to the whims of the market” appears to be the implication in some arguments defending the status quo.  Is that true?  Are there not other important societal functions that are served by free-market solutions?

In order to illustrate how our current socialistic model of schooling compares to a free-market alternative, Donald J. Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University, published If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools in the May 5, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Free groceries:

Suppose that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education. Residents of each county would pay taxes on their properties. Nearly half of those tax revenues would then be spent by government officials to build and operate supermarkets. Each family would be assigned to a particular supermarket according to its home address. And each family would get its weekly allotment of groceries—”for free”—from its neighborhood public supermarket.

No family would be permitted to get groceries from a public supermarket outside of its district. Fortunately, though, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, families would be free to shop at private supermarkets that charge directly for the groceries they offer. Private-supermarket families, however, would receive no reductions in their property taxes.

Supermarket choice battles:

Public supermarkets would have captive customers and revenues supplied not by customers but by the government. Of course they wouldn’t organize themselves efficiently to meet customers’ demands. Responding to these failures, thoughtful souls would call for “supermarket choice” fueled by vouchers or tax credits. Those calls would be vigorously opposed by public-supermarket administrators and workers. Opponents of supermarket choice would accuse its proponents of demonizing supermarket workers (who, after all, have no control over their customers’ poor eating habits at home). Advocates of choice would also be accused of trying to deny ordinary families the food needed for survival. Such choice, it would be alleged, would drain precious resources from public supermarkets whose poor performance testifies to their overwhelming need for more public funds.

As for the handful of radicals who call for total separation of supermarket and state—well, they would be criticized by almost everyone as antisocial devils indifferent to the starvation that would haunt the land if the provision of groceries were governed exclusively by private market forces. In the face of calls for supermarket choice, supermarket-workers unions would use their significant resources for lobbying—in favor of public-supermarkets’ monopoly power and against any suggestion that market forces are appropriate for delivering something as essential as groceries. Some indignant public-supermarket defenders would even rail against the insensitivity of referring to grocery shoppers as “customers,” on the grounds that the relationship between the public servants who supply life-giving groceries and the citizens who need those groceries is not so crass as to be discussed in terms of commerce.

It is clear that our system of compulsory government schooling is antithetical to our founding principles.  One would think it would appear obvious that our personal liberties would be (and are) threatened by such a system yet very few people seem to notice or care. All that ever gets seriously discussed in the public square is the amount of money to be allocated to the government school system and how much freedom should be allowed at the margins. Fortunately, there are some visionaries and revolutionaries that are rattling the education cages.  I hope they will eventually get a fair hearing from the rest of the citizens.

Don McFadden recently retired from a career in institutional finance and has nearly recovered from his years of government schooling. His interest in the concept of compulsory schooling and the roots of the modern public education model was initially energized by John Taylor Gatto’s magnum opus, The Underground History of American Education. Subsequent research led him to create his blog