There are so many great arguments for a free-market education system that they are hardly worth repeating here. (I do suggest John Stossel’s “Stupid in America” as an excellent, digestible overview.) The American education system has become a surreal affair. We’ve become used to the idea of something like a “right to education” and education being a core task of government. Covered with a patina of familiarity, it is sometimes difficult to see the American education system for the bizarre Keystone cops situation it is. We shrug our shoulders and rhetorically ask, “How could it be different?”
Thankfully the Texas State Board of Education is here to remind us of the inherently failed concept of public education.
Recently the Keystone cops met to hash-out the new curriculum. TFN Insider has been documenting the attempts by the conservative board members to modify education through propaganda. The blogged minutes to the meetings record it all. They have dropped Thomas Jefferson (a deist) from the list of Enlightenment philosophers who influenced the founders and instead include Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin (?!?) and William Blackstone. (The inclusion of Blackstone is particularly odd. Many founders, including Jefferson and James Wilson, had a love-hate relationship with Blackstone, a Tory, and his undying devotion to parliamentary supremacy. Sir Edward Coke, a more rights-based guy, was more influential to many of the founders.) During a general lesson on rights, they suggested that the First Amendment is unduly privileged over the Second Amendment and suggested dropping all coverage of either if they don’t get equal time. Also, in a predictable rehearsal of favorite conservative trope, they voted to elide over the separation of church and state. As TFN blogged:
12:28 – Board member Mavis Knight offers the following amendment: “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” Knight points out that students should understand that the Founders believed religious freedom was so important that they insisted on separation of church and state.
12:32 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar argues that the Founders didn’t intend for separation of church and state in America. And she’s off on a long lecture about why the Founders intended to promote religion. She calls this amendment “not historically accurate.”
12:35 – Knight’s amendment fails on a straight party-line vote, 5-10. Republicans vote no, Democrats vote yes.
And the list goes on. Conservatives have become enamored with the idea of a “culture war” and are ready to fight it through any means necessary. They must fight the dupers who indoctrinate our children and send our country down the heathen path to socialism. As I wrote in my first piece on the Citizens United case:
Both sides of the political aisle attempt to explain the other side’s opinions as a product of something other than rationality and a careful consideration of the facts. At some level, this may be psychologically necessary in order to maintain the self-aggrandizing illusion that only your side is rational and “gets it.” Therefore, the political right and left manufacture the existence of “dupes”; those people easily influenced and lulled into complacency by powerful forces. For the right, the duping force is often characterized as the “liberal intelligentsia”–the universities and their left-leaning professors, Hollywood, and the public school system populated by left-leaning teachers. For the left, the duping force is corporations, their for-profit motivations, and the corporate controlled media.
Particularly ironic here is how both the campaign finance reformers and the religious right see part of the First Amendment as a grant, rather than a restriction, of government power. For campaign finance reformers the Free Speech Clause actually means that the government is empowered to equalize speech. For the religious right the Establishment Clause apparently allows for government promotion of religion. Call me crazy, but my favorite part is the “Congress shall make no law…” part.
Amidst the numerous head-scratching moments I hope that a few observers realized the ridiculousness of having elected representatives choose how all the kids in the state would be educated. Education is the last thing that should be a one-size-fits-all endeavor. The state, unfortunately, is a one-size-fits-all entity. As Milton Friedman once said:
The political principle that underlies the political mechanism is conformity. The individual must serve a more general social interest–whether that be determined by a church or a dictator or a majority. The individual may have a vote and say in what is to be done, but if he is overruled, he must conform. It is appropriate for some to require others to contribute to a general social purpose whether they wish to or not.
The free market, on the other hand, runs off the principle of unanimity: nothing gets done unless all parties to the transaction agree to the terms.
In education, the political arena simply becomes a method by which the winners of school board elections—even if winning by a single vote—are given the coercive power of the state to force every child to learn ideologically-driven nonsense. And, as long as the state controls education, it will always be this way.
The efforts of the religious right in TX, and its depressingly predictable conservative characters on TX’s state board of education, to push revisionist theories of American history and all too “convenient” readings of the Federal Constitution should undoubtedly be challenged. However, despite this saddening use of political clout to cloud an already hazy environment in public education, the touted virtues of fully “privatized” K-12 education should be met with the same criticism.
Specifically, the rise and fall of Edison School Inc. gives good reason to proceed with caution when self-proclaimed libertarian conservatives call for fully privatized education. Edison is a fully privatized, for-profit education management group, formerly traded on NASDAQ, that operates in both the US and UK. Investigation into Edison’s fortunes, and repeated failures to deliver higher quality schools that produce better performing students is a relatively high profile example of just how inefficient and ineffective private control of education can be. Furthermore, Edison’s track record gives credence to fears that relinquishing control of public education to the private sector is sacrificing public education at the hands of a long list of private interests. Needless to say, Edison is no longer traded publicly on NASDAQ.
The failure of the Framers to address education in the Federal Constitution, after declaring the inalienable nature of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, should be considered one of their more significant oversights. The Framers provided the dream, but as in several other obvious regards, were not necessarily interested in seeing that dream realized. Accordingly, the Framers failed to provide the mechanisms by which average Americans could truly claim their liberty and pursue happiness. A fundamental right to a high quality education would have at least provided the historical and constitutional impetus for ranking education as a foremost domestic priority.
In the absence of such a right, our nation has produced a history of educational inequity, ineptitude, inefficiency. In the absence of such a right, the Framers set the stage for states to repeatedly ignore the education needs of their citizenry.
Thanks much for the comment, Dan. A few observations:
– One of the interesting rhetorical hang-ups that both sides of the political isle suffer from is the tendency to hold the private/public distinction to different standards of accountability. The right will point out government failures as evidence that government can’t do anything right. The left will point out market failures for the same proposition about privatization. Both sides tend to hold the opposite side to a different standard: markets must be perfect to be justified (e.g. the persistent fallacious invocation of “market failure”) whereas governments must only be adequate. This is intellectual slovenliness of the first order.
The only question that really matters is which system works better overall. Neither system would be close to perfect. There would be fraud, failures, and horrible oversights under both systems. The best is truly the enemy of the good. In this vein I one-up your example of Edison Schools Inc. with the example of every government run inner city school in every large city in America.
The forces which the free market harnesses for good–the self-interested motives that drive humans–are only adequately restricted in a robust market in which competition is healthy and constant. Under the current system, the market for privatized, for-profit schools is hardly robust. I argue, however, that under a voucher-type system the influx of money into the system would create robust competition that would lower the possibility that another Edison Schools would happen. Recall, as I’ve mentioned before, that I believe in government funding but not government running schools.
– Which leads into the second point. I vehemently deny that education is a right and, if you think it is, I put the onus upon you to define “right” in a coherent and helpful way. Perhaps, under your definition, education is a right. But, I do not think that a right is synonymous with “really, really important.” The overuse of this word increasingly turns a “right” into a vacuous concept.
Nevertheless, I do believe that education is really really important. Moreover, because I think that the market has a problem when children and parents are involved, I think that the government should fund education for all. Education, however, is emphatically not a right.
Unfortunately, I am somewhat dismayed that your post belies the tangled thinking of knee-jerk leftists. Your reasoning appears to be the standard leftist refrain: X is important/essential, important/essential things should be supplied by the government, therefore X should be supplied by the government. I wonder whether you feel similarly about food, which is far more important than education. The left is so enamored with this type of thinking–a thinking which resembles a religion and could be described as the “theistic theory of the state”–that they struggle to think any other way. Thus, when one says “I think that there should be no public education” the left hears, “I don’t think people should be educated” and immediately attack you for not believing education is important, not caring, etc…
In fact, I think education is so damn important that the state should hardly touch it. I think something similar about food, shelter, and most important things in life. As far as the back-of-the-envelope scorecard on this, the state loses woefully. Edison Schools is a drop in the bucket compared to the litany of state failures that is never-ending and ongoing.
We agree far more than you think. If I could summarize my prior post with a one liner, it would say something like:
“Proceed with caution, particularly when unchecked proselytizing for the free market comes to the fore.”
This is not to say education reform should not proceed or that I do not share a more tempered version of your faith in free market’s ability to drive progress. I agree that ideas surrounding a government-funded, but not government-managed, approach to reform that incorporates increases in school choice are ideas that hold much promise. The budding charter school movement provides many examples of government funding going to more privately managed charter schools and resulting in success in terms of increased student performance. I look forward to the advance of this trend.
Also, there’s no need for one-uping. The failure of inner-city schools across the country is obvious and well known to anyone that takes this issue seriously. Again, my prior post was intended to highlight the fact that blind-faith in free market principles will not necessarily deliver us to the promise land…not to deny the historical failures of public education in urban schools or otherwise.
In defining the polarized approaches to this public/private debate, you define the left’s view as:
“markets must be perfect to be justified (e.g. the persistent fallacious invocation of “market failure”), whereas governments must only be adequate.”
I take issue with this approach. The fear that many center-left-minded observers hold regarding aggressive privatization of the education market is based on as profound an understanding of free market principles as held by anyone on the right, and likely a more honest appreciation of the free market, its effects, and the reality in which it operates. The fear is not that the free market will “fail” – whatever that’s supposed to mean – but that the market will perform. At the level of the individual or individual firms, free market theory generally dictates the survival of the fittest, that competition will force individuals or firms in a certain market to maximize the efficient use of scarce resources (human, financial, and otherwise) or fail. Therefore, in competitive markets, successes or failures are measured in terms of the successes or failures of individuals or individual firms.
However, on a societal level, the consequences of broadly adopting free market principles is not measured in terms of individuals or individual firms, but in terms of the consequences created among entire classes of the population. In terms of public education, the consequences will be measured in terms of the groups of students as special education students, English language learners, students with mental, psychological, and developmental disabilities, and the children of immigrants (legal and illegal), etc. Many of these groups already suffer from a lack of educational opportunities. These groups have been cited as being the first groups to suffer from decreased access to educational opportunities in instances where experimentation in applying free-market principles in the realm of public education via voucher programs, charter schools, and increases in school choice have been attempted. In the realm of a fully privatized, completely deregulated, free market system of education, no framework would exist to protect such groups from severely decreased access to quality educational opportunities. Again, the point here is not that progress should discontinue, but that explicit efforts should be made throughout the reform process to ensure that educational opportunity is increased for as many students as possible, not merely for a few.
The historical failure of free-market advocates, libertarians, and fiscal conservatives to provide a credible plan for how to deal with the lower economic class and minority ethnic and social classes has been and continues to be its major downfall. With regard to education, I agree with much of the free-market speculation that eventually the free market will fuel the creation of more diverse and dynamic schools and systems of schools that will be more equipped to meet the ever varied needs of the millions of students currently attending public schools. However, I disagree that blind faith in free market ideals will deliver American education to an era that increases
The failure of generally Republican fiscal conservatives to reconcile their opposition to healthcare reform with the stark reality that some 30-40 million Americans cannot attain health insurance either because the legitimately cannot afford it, or because in a relatively loosely regulated market they are deemed inefficient and unprofitable inputs and are thus excluded from participation by insurance companies is the latest example of this. The reluctance of fiscal conservatives to confront the externalities, in human, governmental, and fiscal terms, associated with avoiding the lower economic and social classes is has also exposed many a half-baked pseudo-libertarian fiscal conservatives. To be clear, I am not offering my opinions above as a defense of the status quo, a call for bigger government, or to demonize the free-market. Again, I merely wish to flash some bright yellow lights to illuminate the sign which reads “proceed with caution.”
Regarding the failure of the Framers to address education: For the sake of argument, I’ll argue that an education-related right could have been adequately defined by employing general concepts regarding “access” and “quality” and expecting interpretation across time…or by simply adding “education” to the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration; a move which would have really killed the flow of that great passage, but ensured education’s historical status as a foremost domestic priority. While I agree that difficulties would surround any attempt to define the access to quality education as a right, I don’t think “difficulty” is a reason to avoid an issue. Define “liberty.” Surely it is difficult to define such a transcendent notion. If anything, “access to quality education” exists as a peripheral right derived from the notion of “liberty,” and is thus as fundamental right under substantive due process jurisprudence.
Ultimately, Trevor, your point is well taken, and I agree with you that education probably should not a “right.” However, the point I was attempting to illustrate in contemplating education as a right remains the same. The Framers provided the dream, but failed to address or prioritize one of the most important preconditions to the fulfillment of that dream. The Framers had no problem addressing other elements that they considered essential to the future success and preservation of the United States. Via the inclusion of the Bill of Rights, provisions regarding the separation of powers, the military, the regulation of interstate commerce, the Framers ensured that the Federal Constitution would stand to promote certain specific individual rights, and the political, military, and economic security of the US. What about education? Ultimately, whether the Framers failure to address educational issues stemmed from a lack of foresight or deliberate efforts to institutionalize the white, educated, aristocracy of their time is irrelevant to the underlying point that their failure to address the issue has largely resulted in educational inefficiency, inequity, and ineptitude.
While we may disagree about certain minutiae regarding the left, the right, and the free market, I think we both agree that education reform is important, necessary, and needs to incorporate more elements of the free-market to increase school choice and promote the creativity and innovation at the school level that will be necessary to make any reform successful.
A few points. I don’t believe in a completely unregulated free-market. I think that reality will dictate that a voucher-type program, at least initially, will require some type of government certification to qualify those schools who can receive federal money. I also worry about this because it is entirely possible, if not probable, that such a licensing entity will simply turn into another system of state-run education. This also may be constitutionally necessary, however, in order to prevent government entanglement with religion.
My faith in the free market is far from limitless. There will be pain and suffering and failures. As you point out, the free market runs off of failures. This is the cost to having a dynamic, efficient, and effective system of providing goods. The benefits, however, outweigh the costs. In the end I would rather rely on the self-interest of possible pedagogical entrepreneurs whose well-being will be tied to the success or failure of their students rather than bureaucrats who cannot get fired, are watching the clock for 5 o’clock and counting the days to their posh guaranteed retirement package. This is not to say that I think there are bad people in school bureaucracy, but only to say that they are people without the proper incentives.
Also, it is about time to ignore the Republican party on all matters of “fiscal conservatism.” Regarding the health care debate: calling the health care market “relatively loosely regulated market” is simply laughable. We have an extremely regulated market that is FAR from a free market. Moreover, almost all the money in health care is directly or indirectly controlled by the government (75%). Characterizing Obamacare as a victory over an unregulated and inefficient free market is remarkably false.
Yet again, however, it is oft-spoken mistakes such as this that constantly paint the free market as a failure when, more often than not, it is the government’s heavy hand that causes the failure.
Lastly, call education a right if you want but it still seems that you are calling it a right because it is really important. This is not what a right is. A right describes the essential domain of human agents who live together–a domain that is required for peaceful and non-combative living. Your characterization of the other things that the Constitution provides, military, Bill or Rights, etc, is mostly a list of negative rights. Education is a positive right. More specifically, it is a right to another’s property.
Positive “rights” are another entity entirely. A positive right mandates that the corresponding duty requires expending time and resources. Contrast a positive right to health vs. a negative right to life. A negative right to life means that all others hold a duty to omit killing me. Currently I am enjoying that right as fully as possible. A positive right to life means that all others have a duty to take care of me. In order to be absolute, everyone would have to devote all their time and resources to keep me alive for even one extra day. But, of course, there are other people to take care of, other people to educate, other duties to fulfill. This means that the distribution of resources will depend upon some concept other than a right. In short, it means that the right is an irrelevant concept that answers no normative questions. 10 people, 5 vaccines, all are sick; all have a “right” to health care. The invocation of a “right” does not answer this question. The only moral answer to this question is to advocate a system in which more vaccines are produced and available to more people; i.e. capitalism.
Most importantly, a set of positive rights includes necessary contradictions. When the resources for a right to education and the right to health care butt heads, which wins? Politics, favoritism, and nepotism win. In short, positive rights are not the necessary domains held by agents in order to live together cooperatively and not combatively. Actually, they are political concepts that engender combat and strife. In short, they are not rights.
Lastly, as I think you know, the reason I advocate free market education so strongly is because of the downtrodden and lower classes that you say will slip through the cracks. This is doubly true for the special needs kids that you mentioned. My white, wealthy upbringing in excellent schools is the last problem that needs to be solved here.
Not that we need to rehash the health care debate here, but it is worth noting a few points. Undoubtedly, if one had taken a snapshot of regulatory landscape surrounding healthcare 6 months ago, and prior to the passage of Obama’s plan, it would be tough to term it as the US health care industry as “loosely regulated.”
However, it is worth noting that there was just enough wiggle room under the existing legal framework for health insurers to conveniently avoid costly inputs – sick people, people with pre-existing conditions, the elderly, etc. – and to use insanely unequal bargaining power to draft contracts that maximized costs to consumers while minimizing health insurers responsibilities and liabilities when those consumers got sick and required care. This was a pretty solid plan for maximizing profits for health insurance mega-conglomerates. When rather large classes of people are reduced to mere inputs – branded as costly and then easily avoided – on the road to industry giants securing large profits, I’d say that theres also some wiggle room to through around the term “loosely regulated.”
The history of health care regulation in this country is also worth noting. For one, its worth asking: why was the social security acts of 1935 and 1965 necessary? Some say it wasn’t and still isn’t. However, I’ll ask fiscal conservatives to show me a credible plan, based on more than pure economic theory, for how to deal those that the health care industry has traditionally branded too costly and thus excluded from the system. When I see one, I’ll jump on board in a heartbeat.
Lastly, in that snapshot from six months ago, it’s also worth asking “Qui Bono?” with regard to the laws that were in place pre-Obamacare. In addition to what I described above, is it just a coincidence that interstate health care was non-existent and that healthcare companies were exempted from anti-trust laws, and that in many states literally one – or very few – healthcare company(s) had captured a monopoly?
Since Truman – the first president to wholeheartedly pursue some sort of federalized health care system – left office in 1953, the party that prides itself in fiscal conservatism has held the presidency for some 36 years -opposed to 20 yrs for the Dems. Seems like plenty of time for them to have addressed the issues posed above at a federal level.
So what’s the difference between being “loosely-regulated” and having enough economic clout and political influence to make up your own rules?…while simultaneously crying that the heavy hand of big government is holding you down. So long as government exists, winners in the marketplace will also win vast influence in the political process. Qui bono? Not us.
I think I’ve already pointed you to “How American Health Care Killed My Father.” If you haven’t read that I really suggest it: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/09/how-american-health-care-killed-my-father/7617/
Likewise, I suggest reading “Yes, Mr. President, a Free-Market Can Fix Health Care”: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=10646
Lastly, regarding pre-existing conditions and other insurance rigamarole and the ability for a free market to provide this, I suggest this fascinating paper on Health Status Insurance: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=9986
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