Happening Today: Education Week Leadership Symposium. Learn more and register.
Education Commentary

The Mythology of The Marketplace In School Choice

By Dennis L. Evans — October 17, 1990 5 min read

The acclaim being accorded the notion of “parental choice” of schools is but one more example of the sad truth that public education ranks right up there with popular music, sartorial styles, and TV stardom in terms of susceptibility to faddism. The hypnotic appeal of the “quick fix” leads us to uncritically create a new orthodoxy out of any program or platform that promises progress. And the greater the promise, the greater the alacrity of our acceptance.

The proponents of choice have been beguiled by an a priori assumption that the virtues of competition in the marketplace can be made applicable to any organizational endeavor, including the education of our children. When voices such as those of the President and the gurus of corporate America extol choice and competition as forces that will dramatically alter public education, it is admittedly difficult to resist their siren call. But its “flag and apple pie” appeal notwithstanding, the notion that parental choice and the resultant competition among schools ~ will lead to lasting generational progress in public education is flawed in several significant ways. Those flaws emanate from the mythology surrounding the choice issue. Some of the most pervasive myths include:

• Competition Leads to Quality. The proponents of choice assume that a cause-and-effect relationship exists between competition and quality in the marketplace, and that a similar dynamic would work with schools. In the business world, however, the relationship between competition and quality is a function of profit. If a company can show a greater profit by providing a cheaper, lower-quality product (planned obsolescence!) or service (“no frills”), that is exactly what it will do. The company is not in business to give the consumer the best possible product or service at the lowest possible price; to the contrary, it will attempt to improve its profit margin by any method that will work.

Competition only allows the consumer, on occasion, to save some money. But the product or the service may still remain shoddy. We accept as fact the notion that “you get what you pay for.” When you truly want a high-quality product or service, you must be willing to pay more for it. If you are not concerned with quality, you will look for the cheapest product. Thus it is that we have fine restaurants and fast food; first class and coach; Mercedes and Yugos. Competition impacts pricing far greater than it does the quality of a product.

• Corporate America Knows Best. Beyond the mythology that promotes competition as a panacea, there is a related mentality that pervades discussions, not just of school choice, but of school reform in general. It is based on the same reasoning that led to the legendary phrase, attributed to a former G.M. board chairman, that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

Some of the most strident voices criticizing public education, and proposing choice options, come from corporate America. Why do we have faith that the gospel according to Xerox has substantive meaning for education? Why do we put our trust in emanations from a corporate boardroom regarding what should occur in a classroom? For every success story in the business world we can also point to an Edsel, an Eastern, or a Lincoln Savings.

If we are so enamored of the corporate model, then perhaps we should consider a Chrysler-type bailout for our schools; give the schools everything they need financially and then see if they can “turn a profit.” To coin a phrase, “What’s good for Chrysler is good for the schools.”

• Parents Will Make Wise Choices. It certainly makes political sense to extol the wisdom that parents will supposedly manifest if they are given the opportunity to shop for schools. What evidence exists to support that politically attractive myth? Are these the same parents who are so lacking in discrimination in other areas of the marketplace? On what basis do these parents make decisions regarding the choice of automobiles, television sets, dishwasher detergent, and political candidates?

The proponents of choice will obviously avoid expressing concerns regarding the ability of parents to make independent and wise choices. But some have begun asking pertinent questions, such as whether or not parents given school choice may need some type of consumer-protection safeguards. Do we really believe that most parents are prepared to make substantive decisions matching the “learning style” of their child with the broad array of choice options the concept’s advocates foresee? Is it not more reasonable to assume that marketing, packaging, and advertising will dictate school choice?

Certainly, most parents will be highly motivated to make a wise choice of schools. Unfortunately, good intentions are no guarantee of good decisions.

• Lay Decisionmakers Are Superior to Professionals. Parental choice is but one of the many manifestations of our populist distrust of professionals. It is a distrust that causes us to accept the mythology that all educational decisionmaking would be best served if the public were to make the decisions. That mythology is based, in part, on the fallacious notion that the schools are “selling” something and that the public as “consumer” knows best. But the practice of lay control of public education is much more deeply founded than mere infatuation with the marketplace.

In public education, we have doggedly maintained the colonial tradition of lay school boards. And indeed, in places like Chicago, we have extended that anachronism to give neighborhood councils the authority to make educational- policy decisions. Is it not somewhat ironical, at a point in time when the family unit is in great disarray, when parental authority over the behavior of children has reached a nadir, when “latch key” children are legion, that we remain willing to hand over the destiny of all of our children to that same “public”?

If, for the sake of argument, we accept the view of the critics and the politicians that public education is in need of massive reform, would it not make sense to critically assess the role that lay decisionmakers have had in leading public education into this crisis? It may be heretical to suggest that lay legislators and school-board members are not the best sources for educational decisionmaking, or that neighborhood- council members would do well to concentrate on their own children, but perhaps we have reached a point when heresy is what is needed. We cannot afford to continue to use “the Little Red Schoolhouse” as our model for the governance of public education.

Those who challenge the bandwagon hysteria and hoopla that surround parental choice will likely be labeled as elitists, obstructionists, or even worse, “professional educators.” But the fact remains that we are not merely dealing with automobiles or copying machines. We are debating the destiny of our children. And that is far too vital an issue to allow the zealots, the politicians, the corporations, or even our most sacrosanct traditions to stifle inquiry, discussion, and dissent.

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 1990 edition of Education Week