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

 

25Feb/170

Betsy DeVos’ Private Game off in Right Field

When I was in middle school, every day after school a group of us would get on our bikes and head for a vacant lot where we would organize a baseball game.  Each day we would pick sides, divide up the equipment, and figure out who was playing where.  This was so much fun that we did it for several years.

What would have happened if someone had then organized their own, private game off in right field, using some of our players and equipment, saying that they knew better how to play?  Would we have allowed that?  It wouldn’t have mattered that they might claim to be better players than we were, getting more hits or whatever, or that they included more of the poor kids or the less-skilled players.  The whole concept was wrong.  They had agreed to play the game together with all of us; setting up their own, private, game was a violation of that agreement.  We wouldn’t have allowed it, and we certainly wouldn’t have  let them expand these private games on to other parts of the playing field.

This is what Betsy DeVos is trying to do with public education.  She wants to take a group activity, something organized by the entire population, that is, public education, and break off a small part of it to play her own game with her own private equipment and people.  She claims that this works better, and is even more democratic, since she makes sure she includes people from a wide range of backgrounds.  But that is not the point.  She is breaking the agreement that we had from the start, that we all would work collectively for the success of that original program, the public schools.

Well, she would say, she is doing this because those public schools are not doing well; they need a new approach.  The original game was not producing the results we wanted.
But is her private game a way to fix this?  Back on that playground, would that private game in right field ever be seen as a way to improve the original game?  How could it do that?  It has turned away from that game and gone off on its own.  It may do well, but it is clearly not going to help the original game do well.  If we want to fix that original, collective activity, we have to work on that, not some separate edition of a private game.

Okay, she might admit, my game is probably not helping fix the big collective game, but that’s okay, because no one wants that game, anyway.  People want these small, private programs that seem to work so much better.  They produce results, and that’s what people want.

But if that is so, why didn’t we start out with these private programs from the start, since they work so well?  There are plenty of other countries in the world where the only good schools are private; why didn’t America take that path?  Isn’t it because we set this country up on the basis of equality and justice for all, not just for some?  We opted, then, for a large, collective educational program because we wanted to educate everyone to roughly the same level; that’s not possible with small private schools.  They will always produce a wide variety of outcomes, not equality.

The public schools were set up to solve a problem that could not be solved through private means: the education of the entire population up to a common level.  There is no way private schools can do this, regardless of how well they do, or whether they have access to private or public funds.  They solve some problems, but they don’t solve that one.  They are a rejection of the idea that everyone can be educated equally.

I would be the first to admit that the public schools have problems.  So let’s work on these, and not waste our time trying to create a parallel private system that we have never wanted, and never will want.  Let’s run that private game off the playing field, or, better still, talk them into rejoining the main group effort.

Peter Dodington

February 25, 2017

 

ollective, group efforts, like the public schools or that afternoon ballgame, are worth