Do Free Markets Always Lead to Better Quality?

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To the Editor: I am always intrigued by proponents of a "free market" approach to reforming education, as delineated in the Commentary by Karl Borden and Edward A. Rauchut ("Choice: Making Even Good Schools Better," April 17, 1996). Many proponents of such a system point to our consumer market and its dizzying array of choices as evidence that competition will initiate public school reforms to meet the needs of society. What I have yet failed to see addressed is the equally prevalent issue of quality within a competitive market.

Yes, there are many more phone styles available to buy than in years past (as pointed to in the article), but are they all of the same quality? I myself have tried to save money by buying a less expensive phone, only to be dissatisfied with sound, or worse. But it sure was nice of "the market" to offer me many choices of poor-quality phones from which to choose. Likewise, the car industry is built upon a premise of lines of cars that begin with the cheapest, most stripped-down version of automobile to the super deluxe. We consumers have the "choice" of buying into the line we can afford. I think anyone would be hard pressed to believe that the quality of an $8,000 car is equal to that of a $50,000 car.

The same correlations can be made in a theoretical "free market" school system. Those who can afford the best will buy the best, the rest of the "consumers" (and we're talking about children here) will have to settle for whatever the market dumps upon them.

If reform-minded proponents are willing to abandon the poor for a free market, then they should be brave enough to say this up front. But let us not be deceived into believing that all will receive an equal-quality education.

Eric A. Johnson
Graduate Student
University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

To the Editor:

The free-market triumphalism of Karl Borden and Edward A. Rauchut in their Commentary ignores an extremely important point: The school systems in those developed countries with which the United States competes are almost entirely government-run, with curricula that are much more centrally planned than those in (locally controlled) U.S. schools; yet many of those countries are producing higher student achievement (often substantially higher) than U.S. schools do on average.

Messrs. Borden and Rauchut write about the "empirical evidence of the superiority of competitive markets." What about the empirical evidence of the success of more centralized education systems (including even some of those that operated in Central European countries under Communism)?

The facts are that the virtues of the free market, for which Messrs. Borden and Rauchut adduce very good theoretical arguments, cannot always be realized in every segment of the economy, and substantial empirical evidence indicates that education is one of these segments. There are many other such segments, from road building to military defense. One could make the case that more, rather than less, centralization (as in proposals for national student-achievement standards) would improve U.S. education.

Paul Regnier
Washington, D.C.

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