Education Shouldn’t Be About Market Share
Since it seems this idea won’t go away, let’s go another round. Markets don’t produce equity. A “better” or “purer” marketplace of schools will fail at promoting educational equity.
The past few weeks have given us ample opportunities to see the conservative preference for turning education (like most other public services) into a marketplace. We’ve seen candidates and advocates who have learned to pivot from test score gaps to vouchers, parent triggers, and other policies aimed at closing district schools and replacing them with a “competitive marketplace.”
These are, to say the least, not new ideas. They’ve been tried before and produced mediocre results. This is because the conditions of educational equity—meaning universal opportunity to get a high-quality education—are incompatible with the conditions of a competitive marketplace.
Students and families who are legally required to receive a free service don’t exactly fit the classical economic definition of buyers. (Yes, those who spend their own money on private education are an exception. Requiring everyone to buy education wouldn’t exactly be equitable; the free option is necessary for educational equity.) Schools that provide their services at that same free price point aren’t any better a fit for the economic definition of sellers. With no one competing on price and “quality” measured in narrow, questionable test score calculations, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the primary tool of school “competition” is marketing, not pedagogical or institutional innovation. Marketing is easier and cheaper.
There are other reasons why educational equity doesn’t mesh with the market approach. Competitive markets require low “transport costs,” meaning it should be easy to connect the buyer with the seller. These include the costs of searching for the right fit. In education, search costs and other transport costs can high enough to effectively keep many working families from accessing their options.
Education also isn’t the kind of service that allows the consumer to easily hop between brands. Transitioning between schools is almost always disruptive for students, and expecting families to shop around regularly isn’t good for students. An equitable school system would also, by definition, serve every student. Schools can’t be like a mechanic who declares a car totaled or like a furniture factory that seeks out a different lumber supplier. The analogies are insulting and dehumanizing to students, each of whom deserves a school that will help them move towards success, whether it’s profitable or not.
This may be one reason why for-profit education has such a rocky track record. The money in education isn’t in educating (or at least not in educating well). The focus of schooling should not be on the cost-benefit analysis of recruiting or continuing to serve particular students. The closer education comes to that model, the stronger the perverse incentive to dump “bad” students into someone else’s lap. In many cases, that’s easier and cheaper than continuing to try to serve that student.
Ultimately, educational equity is about delivering a public service, not a market good. Like fire protection or public parks, free education is available to everyone. (Or at least it should be. There is the occasional town in Tennessee that requires its fire department to watch your house burn with your pets inside because you live just outside the town border and haven’t paid your subscription fee.) Public services advance equity, especially when it’s not profitable for anyone else to.
Competitive markets may be efficient, but they do not provide for equity. When we look at the essentials for human survival, like food and shelter, we can see very clearly that markets have failed to produce an equitable outcome. What’s more, innovation can happen in the public sector as well as in private marketplaces despite what some conservatives would like us to believe.
We must focus on improving the service, not perfecting the marketplace. Involving families in decision-making empowers them to help improve the service, while perfecting the marketplace merely empowers them to leave. Working hard to recruit and co-locate the services students need in community schools improves the service, while perfecting the marketplace means schools are more likely to point students in need to someone else. Using the institutional power of the public school system for anti-racist purposes improves the service, while perfecting the marketplace will probably further increase segregation.
There is value in having a diverse set of school options. There is also value in having a strong, reliable public school system dedicated to serving all children. These can co-exist in the same system, and they can exist side-by-side as partners in innovation. Using the marketplace as a tool for dismantling public schools, however, makes equity harder to achieve. Destructive, unproductive marketing competitions don’t free or empower families nearly as much as public, democratic schools committed to undoing the ills and oppressions of our past and present.