Directions 2000: A Forum
Opening the Education Marketplace
Testifying recently before a subcommittee of the new House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, former U.S. Secretaries of Education Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett charged that the Clinton Education Department "operates from the deeply erroneous belief that American parents, teachers, communities, and states are too stupid to raise their own children, run their own schools, and make their own decisions."
Last November, voters rejected this Washington world view and sent out a call for limits to government, declaring that most problems are best solved by those who are closest to them. Republican candidates--for Congress, as well as at state and local levels--ran on broad themes concerning how government should work, all of which have corollaries in the area of education. They emphasized diminished government and greater personal freedom, economic efficiency, public accountability, and stronger families. In education, several movements correspond to these themes, movements that will make schools more accountable and that can be broadly characterized as "market based" reforms. By instituting such reforms, the U.S. education industry--a nearly $300 billion enterprise in elementary and secondary education alone (approximately the annual sales of the Big Three automakers)--will behave more like a free market than a public monopoly. Schools will become more responsive to the "consumers" of education--students and their parents--than its producers, which include teachers' unions, school boards, and various administrator groups at all levels.
Reforms that will help make this happen include: the creation of autonomous charter public schools; parental choice of schools (including, in some plans, religious and other private schools); greater freedom in contracting out for services from private providers; and establishing external standards and measures of assessment (to insure public accountability for tax dollars spent and to help generate information for parents to make informed choices about where to enroll their children). Market inefficiencies will always exist in a system where education is compulsory and politicians--rather than consumers--pull the purse strings. Nonetheless, these reforms go a long way toward replacing regulations with incentives and injecting accountability back into American education systems through the discipline of the marketplace.
What would a deregulated, market-based education system look like? Herewith a few examples--looking back from 2000--of what would be possible under a liberated "system," all of which would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve given the way schooling is organized today.
These sorts of innovations--replication of a quality method or system, joint ventures with strategic partners, subcontracting for activities outside of the enterprise's core interests and capacities, compensation based on merit, and service differentiation--are common in the private sector. They are, however, foreign to most public schools today.
Detractors will cringe at the idea of thinking of education as the relationship between "producers" and "consumers." Indeed, to describe the relationship between a teacher and a student only in such terms would reflect too material and rather reductionist a worldview. Few thoughtful people would argue that equipping children with the character, knowledge, and skills to live productive and purposeful lives can be summed up as the buying and selling of "education services." However, as a way to describe the relationship between an organization and a group of people such an organization serves, the analogy to the marketplace is a useful one.
Many members of the education politburo--union heads, administrator-group executives, education-school professors, and other establishmentarians--smugly dismiss the "crassness" of corporations, charging that they are more concerned with profits than with children. It is folly, however, to suggest that their own motives are not mixed. In New York City in the late 1950's, the union organizer Albert Shanker (now the president of the American Federation of Teachers) proclaimed that "when schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren." It would be wrong to accuse Mr. Shanker of deliberately slighting schoolchildren to defend the interests of his constituency: He's doing his job. It would also be wrong to forget that union heads have producers' interests in mind, and those do not always coincide with the interests of parents, schoolchildren, or taxpayers.
These groups spend millions of dollars each year to preserve their monopolistic position and thwart market-based reforms--through litigation, anti-reform media campaigns, staffing the phone banks of status-quo politicians, and other means. The recent court decision in Michigan that temporarily blocked, and ultimately diluted, that state's charter-school program was a result of legislation sponsored by the Michigan affiliate of the National Education Association with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. The $20 million opposition campaign waged by the California Teachers Association to defeat Proposition 174, which would have allowed California parents a choice among schools, is another example of the awesome influence the unions have over public policy.
The point of the matter (dare I say the bottom line?) is that the current means of providing for education through government-owned and -operated schools is deeply flawed and is serving American schoolchildren poorly. New Republican legislators at all levels--and New Democrats if they are to be found--should join forces to change the ground rules of how we provide for education in America. They should adopt a fresh definition of "public" education, one having more to do with who is served than who provides the service, and pass legislation that allows and encourages new entrants into the education market. Then let diversity, competition, and choice return schools to the public that they are supposed to serve.