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Education Opinion

Thank Goodness Public Schools Don’t Operate Like Grocery Stores

By Sara Mead — November 14, 2011 1 min read

Roxanna Elden, one of 16 Next Gen Ed leaders I profiled earlier this year, guest-blogged at Rick Hess’s space last week. One of the things I really value about Roxanna’s work is her ability to gently and humorously point up the blind spots of education reformers--including a tendency to resort to cliches that can inadvertently insult working educators. This blog post is a great example of that, but I particularly appreciated her comments here:

This is supposed to be an argument about how introducing market-based competition in education encourages innovation and leads to better opportunity, especially for low-income families. If kids and families are treated as consumers, the thinking goes, they will have the buying power to demand a quality education. There may well be some truth to this, but teachers have experience with kids and families as consumers of educational products. We've seen, for example, how hard it is for high-school students to distinguish between respected universities and for-profit career colleges that advertise on daytime TV. It is also worth noting that businesses aren't run for the benefit of consumers. They are run for profit, and many businesses make their biggest profit on people who don't read the fine print. Teachers have insight on how market values may translate to the world of education, as well as the dangers of opening a huge new market of "consumers" to an industry that will likely include the education version of predatory credit card companies and mortgage brokers. After all, there is a long history of corporations marketing destructive products in poor neighborhoods, which are often saturated with billboards for liquor and fast food... and poor quality supermarkets.

My response on reading this was: Gosh, given what we know about food deserts, they’re lucky if they’ve got poor quality supermarkets. If public schools were operated like grocery stores, there simply wouldn’t be any (of any quality) in many high-poverty communities.

But seriously, this is one of the reasons why, even as I believe in the power of market mechanisms to help improve quality of public services, I’m highly skeptical of pure market approaches. Visit any high-poverty rural or urban community in the United States, and it’s abundantly clear that markets are not particularly effective at delivering high-quality goods and services to low-income communities. Why on earth would we think this would be any different for education? (Especially when you consider the role of information asymmetries, principal-agent problems, externalities, high transition costs, and other factors that make the market for educational services far different from the kind of seamless markets we learned about in Econ 101).

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.