National Public Education
6May/170

The Fallacy of “Choice” in Public Education

 

One of the arguments one often hears for the privatization of public education is that we ought to have a “choice” as to what kinds of schools we attend.  In a world where, it is said, there is so much choice already, such as on the internet, why should we have to put up with this “one size fits all” government-run school system?  “Choice” is an American right, they say; it is what makes us “exceptional.”  We should naturally have the right, then, to choose from several different kinds of education for our children, such as charter schools, voucher plans, home schooling, religious schools, etc.

But this view doesn’t make sense.  It ignores the distinction between public and private programs.  “Choice” is a valid concept for a private, market-based transaction, such as when you are buying a new pair of shoes, but does not have a similar validity in a public program like public education.  The whole point of a public program is that we are making a collective project; we are sharing our resources so that we can produce something better than what we could do individually.  In that shared, government-run program, the concept of “choice” will never have the importance that it has in a private transaction.  How this works in public education is fairly clear.

If you get to choose something, and so have a “choice,” you also get to pay for it.  Why would anyone else pay for it?  It’s your decision; you are getting the benefit from it.  So if we really did have “choice” for individuals in public education, what would that mean?  Can you, alone, afford to build a school?  Or a gym, or labs, or hire a calculus teacher? Schools are expensive, like fire engines, power plants, and other things we collectively pay for through public programs.  If we want to treat them like simple consumer goods, like shoes, and so have complete “choice” over how we buy them, we would then also have to pay for them all by ourselves, and so would have to settle for a much lower level of quality.

If we want good schools, we need the help of other taxpayers.  But once you involve these other people you are going to have to let them in, so to speak, on the project. If it’s a cooperative effort, the choices have to be made cooperatively, not individually.  There is no way around this.  Of course we would all like to be able to afford our own private way of educating our children, and the “choice” that goes with this, but most of us can’t afford it.

The whole concept is illogical.  Who is, after all, making this choice?  Obviously, the parents of the children involved.  It’s not a “choice” for the general public, but for the parents with school-aged children.  But who is paying for these schools?  Parents only make up a quarter of our taxpayers.  By far the main supporters of the public schools are the non-parent general public.  So why don’t they get a “choice” about how to spend their money?  Why is a quarter of the population allowed to choose what they want, but the rest of us don’t?  It might make sense for the parents to have “choice” if, in fact, the parents were paying the full cost of the schools, but they aren’t.  The whole concept, then, is illogical and unstable, and the general public will eventually refuse to support it.

Furthermore, we like collective projects.  Let’s look at a middle-school playground, the source of much wisdom.  There, the lonely kid standing off by himself has the “choice” of what game to play that day.  He is free to choose.  Great.  But all the rest of the kids, the ones in the games and other collective activities, no longer have that “choice.”  They have already agreed to play by the rules of the game they are playing, and that’s fine with them.  They don’t have “choice;” they have collective, shared action.  They are doing something together with each other and that is more fun than being alone and having total “choice”.

Collective, shared activities produce better outcomes and are more enjoyable.  But once you are in them, you don’t get “choice.”  You have to abide by the collective decisions that were made when the program was set up. We did “choose” the public school system, a long time ago, and we chose the government to run it.  It didn’t just happen; people voted for it, since it was a good way to share the costs with the entire population and so produce a much better education for our children.  And, yes, that decision does limit how much free choice we now have in that system, but it is well worth it.   The collective, shared benefits far outweigh the value of any individual “choice.”

Peter Dodington

May 6, 2017