Public Education is a Common Good, Not a Consumer Good

Early in the fall of 2016, I was asked to do a panel discussion on public education at UNC-Charlotte with a variety of other stakeholders in the state. There were teachers, social activists, think tank reps, and a couple of advocacy groups.

At one point in the conversation, a representative from a well-known libertarian think tank expressed that what was needed in public education was a move to a free-market model where parents made all the choices and the state should no longer have as much to do with regulating public education.

It was at that point I thought of a quote from Eric Schlosser, a contributor to The Atlantic, who might be most well-known for an expose of the fast food industry called Fast Food Nation.

In 1995, he wrote a piece entitled “In the Strawberry Fields” which investigated the practice of low wages among an immigrant work force. He ended it with this quote:

“Left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate, and cheap—a work force that is anything but free.”

I have thought about that quote often as teachers in this state keep fighting for a more balanced distribution of salary increases and equitable treatment. I think a lot about it as a member of a profession that so needs its collective voice to affect positive change in a right-to-work state controlled by people who follow personalities and not principles.

The idea that public education should become a consumer good in a free market is asinine and seems totally contradictory to both the state constitution and the ideologies of those who helped pioneer our nation. Why?

Because public education is a common good.

In 2001, PBS produced a documentary called School: The Story of American Public Education. A companion book was also published with an introduction by the education scholar David Tyack. He ended his portion with the following prescient paragraphs:

“The politics of education has never been more fluid and complicated than today. As in earlier periods of contentiousness, some critics – especially advocates of vouchers and school choice – have put a new spin on the concept of democracy. The challenge this time is even more fundamental than the earlier attempt to rely on experts. These critics do not seek to replace politics with professional administration.  Indeed, they consider public education already too bureaucratic, too constrained by government regulations inflicted by special-interest groups.

The solution, they say, is to replace politics with markets. Treating schooling as a consumer good and giving parents vouchers for the education of their children solves the problem of quality and decision making: parents choose the schools that will best suit their children. The collective choices engendered by democratic institutions produced bureaucracy and gridlock, they say; the invisible hand of the market will lead the individual to the best personal choice. The market in education will satisfy and liberate families through competition.

But wait. Is education primarily a consumer good or a common good? If Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey were now to enter policy discussions on public education, they might well ask if Americans have lost their way. Democracy is about making wise collective choices, not individual consumer choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to the wise self-rule than they are today.”

In a year where the General Assembly passed a budget without debate and amendments through committee, gave more money to vouchers, funneled money meant for pre-k services to other ventures, and enabled bills like HB541 to come into existence under the guise of “school choice,” November’s election might really be a decision in whether to keep public education a common good in North Carolina or a consumer good that will profit a few.

PSFNC

 

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