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Education Shouldn’t Be About Market Share

August 05, 2014 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

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.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • KJC says:

    August 11, 2014 at 7:58 am

    Really great and thoughtful analysis.  It matches something I’ve been saying for a while?  “The only thing that the for-profit education sector seems to be really better at is?  Selling.”  I appreciate that this article has stuck to the core of the topic, but the politics might bear a quick view?  The “for profit” sector is aligned with one political party.  The public service unions, like teachers, are aligned with the Other Party.  So that One Party see a possible big political gain in backing the “private markete” idea in education, as it would likely destroy the Teacher’s Union, reducing a bulwark of support for the Other Party.  These forces are the “why” I think this “privatizing” idea seems to never go away, despite not being able to deliver much of a genuine solution.  Sadly, this is not about the students, or the necessity of building the next generation of good citizens… the Common Good… underneath it all, this is about money and political power.  Those motives are nearly always hidden behind some kind of intellectual “cover” or smoke-screen as they would otherwise be poorly received by the general citizenry.  I’m only aligning this with your thorough analysis, thanks again.

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    August 11, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Let us start with your last paragraph Michael, “There is also value in having a strong, reliable public school system dedicated to serving all children.” We use to have such a system prior to Teacher Unionization and the shift away from the “Best Interest of the Children”, to “The Best Interest of the Teacher”. It wasn’t just that but also the anti/competition shift that came with it. Under the old system every PUBLIC school was in direct competition with every other Public school. Schools within the same district competed with each other and with all other districts. This competition was very health and was used to both validate curricula and educators alike. Teachers Unions did not like this competition and preferred tenure based on seniority that had no connection to ability to teach. As if that were not bad enough we have gone through 40+ years of school consolidation, not because it produced a better education system but because it produced an easier to administrate system. We have always known that local schools under local control are the best possible educational facilities because they give citizens ownership and power. At the same time consolidation was undermining quality education we shifted into the “Education Reform Movement” or as it was originally called in cities like Chicago, “The Mastery Learning Model”. This garbage took us away from a competitively developed curricula to a top down psychology based curricula modeled after the UNESCO system developed by CHINA. This resulted in such ignorant mistakes as, “See and Say” which was in reality an attempt to apply cuneiform learning style to a phonetic language. It also brought a shift from objective testing to subjective analysis as well as a shift from student based education to the “School to Work” format that is corporate driven. Yet the worst part of this whole story is that while it was suppose to end racial educational inequities in southern states, instead it has turned our once great education system into one of class warfare. While children of color and poverty are getting an increasingly second class education the children of the Elite and Upper Middle Class have seen virtually no decrease in education quality. Of course this is the PARENTS fault or so the elitist Teachers Unions decry, more blaming the poor for being poor to justify elitist practices. The so called free market place of education you so hate was the only defense for those of us who understand what happened to our once great Minnesota public education system.

    • Alec says:

      August 19, 2014 at 1:06 pm

      Do you check anything you say for truth? The big urban districts had at least a generation of unlimited choice and competition. Saint Paul bussed at least 89% of its students until just a couple years ago. Again, we had a generation of unlimited choice and it increased racial and socio-economic isolation. Basically everything you wanted was tried, and made things worse.

      Also, you said our “problems” didn’t arise until teachers unionized, but teachers have been unionizing since at least 1920. So, basically you are pining away for the glory days of the 1800’s?

  • Tim Gieseke says:

    August 11, 2014 at 8:51 am

    One could view the privatization of schools as an attack on public education, or as a means to address the shortcomings of our education system.  Since people are much better at thinking linearly rather than systematic, it is easier to rally support around an attack rather than improvements.  Improvements also imply that the current system is not sufficient and people generally don’t like to publicly admit they need to improve.

    And I see KJC below has similar thoughts on the two-party tug-o-war.

    Perhaps we should admit that “equity” in education is not attainable.  I know equity is not attainable in housing, diet, transportation, utilities and I think everything else.  Our government and society is filled with naked emperors and no little children to point that out.

    So here it goes, “There is not equity in our education system and equity is not attainable”.  So how do we provide a good baseline education for some and allow all to build on that baseline to provide a higher level of education for their children and community. 

    If you are still gasping for air, I will wait before I have the next child point out the next emperor.

  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    August 11, 2014 at 10:28 am

    To Tim and KJC, your myth of a “Public Education System”, ran for the best interests of students has long since been replaced by the reality of a Federally mandated STATE run education system working for the best interests of Government and Giant Corporations. This same Socialist, Public Employee Union led situation extends to the extreme overmedication of America, (ie 90% of all painkillers made on the planet being eaten by 15% of the Planets population Americans), what is finally being recognized as the Elitist Progressives modern version of Eugenics because they are the prescribers benefiting from the profit of sales via investment. And lastly, the Prison Industrial Complex in Minnesota Led again by the Profiteering Public Employee movement. 9 times as many folks of color arrested/harvested over your most profitable Socialist enterprise, “The Drug War”. In reality it is the kingpin of your efforts at fatally undermining our society and creating evermore Upper Middle Class jobs to help these poor people while keeping them in their place. We now imprison 3 times as high a percentage of our people of color as does Mississippi. The sky truly is falling on Progressives who fail to understand reality.

    • KJC says:

      August 11, 2014 at 11:39 am

      Mr. Hamm, I support your right to voice your opinion in responsible ways.  This whole nation is a “work in progress” so I am never complacent about the on-going need for constructive action.  To the degree what is being suggested is actually useful vs. a mere “rant,” people may (or may not) find a communication effective.  Using that benchmark, are you sure it’s a good idea to continue to use language that constantly sounds more like the latter?  (Rant devoid of genuine solutions.)  It’s your choice.

      • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

        August 11, 2014 at 9:48 pm

        Are you suggesting KJC that all these factual conundrums don’t exist? I doubt that because they have all been laid out by the press in undeniable detail. Perhaps you would have us believe these things have all come about accidentally with no intent to take advantage of, or intentionally do anyone any harm. It is impossible to deny that these harmful things are being done. It is equally impossible to deny that someone is responsible. With Public Employee involvement in this WAR ON THE POOR so well documented will you desperately try to change the subject away from RACISM and ELITISM again.

  • Tim Gieseke says:

    August 11, 2014 at 11:13 am

    We struggle with determining if the hierarchy solution resides in the public or private sectors.  But since society has/is moving toward a node-network system, neither side of the teeter-tooter hierarchy functions independently.  The solution is less complicated, but more complex.  A shared governance model is the platform for a node-network-outcome leaning society.

  • Alec says:

    August 19, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Market principles don’t even work in the market. Microsoft just ditched it’s vaunted stacked ranking system for employees because it tore the company apart. Teacher ratings and rankings are based on market based schemes like this. They don’t even work in the market. It is criminal that we will still try them in the public sector. Market based reforms all have one thing in common. They require zero sacrifice from the dominant culture. Ranking teachers, taking away teachers tenure, starting up a charter revenue stream, changing professional standards for teachers so they opnly need 5 weeks of training. No sacrifice for the privileged is the common denominator.