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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

What Are Our Choices?

The marketplace has been no miracle for our health care system. Competition in education through school “choice” promises to deliver similar chaos.

The United States has historically relied on a complex mixture of public and private institutions to ensure political stability, promote the general welfare, and encourage economic development. This tendency is reflected in the structure of American public education. Although most children are educated in tax-supported schools, private schools have always been an important part of the system.
Recently, however, reformers advocating nonpublic school-based “choice” proposals have sought to destroy the distinction between public and private schools. These reformers reject the assumption that our democratic culture is best served when most schools are organized as public institutions paid for by and politically accountable to citizens. Viewing public education through an economic lens, they characterize public schools as monopolies that harm the public by restraining free trade in educational services.

A Misleading Message

Nonpublic school educational choice proposals are largely derived from monetarist economic and social theory and are only one part of the more general right-wing social policy goal of “privatizing” public institutions. For example, after the insurrection in Los Angeles last spring, Dan Quayle suggested that one way the city could raise money would be to sell Los Angeles International Airport. With this recommendation, Quayle was giving voice to the monetarist belief that our country would be better off if we put as much public responsibility in private hands as possible.
From the monetarist perspective, the government is inherently inferior to the “private sector” in providing cost-effective, efficient public services, and the roles of citizen and consumer are virtually indistinguishable. It is consistent with this logic to assert that educational quality would be most likely to improve if schools were considered products and were marketed to consumers free to select any school that best satisfied their individual preferences.
Anyone who has waited in line in the post office, has been put on hold when calling a government agency, or has been frustrated by a complex public school bureaucracy will be attracted by the assertions of advocates of “privatization” and school choice. The image of lean, friendly institutions providing better service at less expense by unleashing private sector competitors anxious to please discerning consumers is appealing. It is also seriously misleading. For example, since choice proposals do nothing about the enormous differences in the amount of money spent on schoolchildren, they would ensure that some children will continue to have many more “choices” than others. Some choice proponents casually claim that poor schools can be improved even without additional funds. They blandly assert that “you can't throw money at problems” as a way of dismissing the issue of funding fairness. Nevertheless, the issue is hard to overlook.
In my state, Wisconsin, approximately $6,200 was spent to educate each child in the Milwaukee public schools in 1991–92. In an affluent suburban district a few miles north, the figure was approximately $11,600. Giving Milwaukee parents vouchers worth the amount currently spent on the education of children in the Milwaukee public school system might pay the tuition of the religious school their child already attends, or it might encourage them to search for a private school within their means. However, it will do nothing to improve the quality of the Milwaukee public schools, and it will surely not provide their child the same education that the children who attend the north suburban district get. Expecting the kind of competition envisioned by school choice proponents to provide poor and working-class children the high-quality education offered in affluent suburbs—when they don't have as much money to spend—is a little like expecting that competitive pressure will eventually turn a used Chevy into a new Mercedes.

Competition and Health Care

While choice advocates say little about funding fairness, they claim much about the magic that competition will work to improve school performance. Curiously, they never explain how competition will improve teaching, nor do they point out one of the most obvious examples of their ideas at work: our health care system.
The American health care system has plenty of competition between insurers, hospitals, and doctors. Instead of a lean, efficient system effectively promoting public health, competition for profits has helped produce the most expensive, least equitable system in the industrial world and a bureaucratic nightmare that threatens to choke us on paperwork. For-profit hospitals and entrepreneurial doctors compete for patients able to pay or covered by insurance. Insurance companies compete for people not likely to need insurance. And, in a losing effort to reduce costs, employers demand more and more restrictions on the type of care their employees receive and on their choice of health care providers.
There are too many hospitals with too much expensive equipment in areas considered lucrative and too few in areas not considered profitable. The marketplace has been no miracle for the approximately 35 million Americans left without health insurance or the countless others fearful of getting sick lest their insurance be taken away from them. The “free” market in “privatized” health care carries an enormous public pricetag. It leaves the public to pick up the tab for the health care of the sickest, poorest, and most unlucky citizens, as well as for the incalculable social costs that are inevitable when so many people are without even basic health services. Compared to our competitive, privatized health care system, public education is a model of cost-effectiveness, responsiveness, equity, and high performance.

What Our Children Deserve

Educational policy and practice do need serious rethinking in almost every aspect. However, the mystical belief that competition will save our schools is a pernicious illusion. It substitutes a few crabbed ideas about a free market in which each person tries to fend for him- or herself for the expansive American vision of public education as a democratic, civic activity intended to help secure the common good through community participation and shared responsibility. Our children deserve attention, commitment, goodwill, equal treatment, and the example of citizens working together to create humane and effective public schools. Glib slogans, false promises, and barren economic theories that have failed in the real world are no substitute.

Alex Molnar has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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