The wisdom of markets

By Larry Sand
June 30, 2020

We choose where we buy food. Why can’t we do the same for our kids’ education?

Those invested in the primacy of traditional public schools – notably the teachers unions, bureaucrats and others who financially benefit from the current set-up – insist that the government is best suited to be in charge of educating our nation’s children, and that any individual or group that pushes for school privatization is greedy, and looking to “get rich off the backs of kids.” One of their stock-in-trade mantras is that education is too important to leave to the whims of the market.

To show how ludicrous this argument is, let’s compare education to food. Both are essential to life. But imagine that you could only get your food from the government supermarket. Worse, you would be restricted to the store in your zip-code and what food you buy no matter how rancid the meat, how overripe the fruit, or how incompetent the store employees are. Some well-to-do families could bypass low-quality stores and pay a steep price to shop at a privately-run market. But families without means don’t have that option, and are stuck with their lousy zip-code mandated grocery store. While studies that have shown that private markets offer higher quality food than the government stores, the government grocery establishment – most notably its employee unions – rigidly fights to maintain its monopoly.

The biggest bugaboo for the government grocery store monolith is supermarket choice. The cartel’s zealots insist that vouchers and other choice plans siphon precious resources, and that the best way to make existing stores more effective is to throw more taxpayer money at them. They will then point out how hard their employees work, and that any attempt at supermarket choice shows disrespect for their dedicated clerks. And as George Mason University economics professor Don Boudreaux points out in his excellent essay on the subject, “Some indignant public-supermarket defenders would even rail against the insensitivity of referring to grocery shoppers as ‘customers,’ on the grounds that the relationship between the public servants who supply life-giving groceries and the citizens who need those groceries is not so crass as to be discussed in terms of commerce.”

The good news is that more and more people are seeing through the education establishment’s vapid talking points. Late last year, a poll by Real Clear Opinion Research found that 68% of registered voters said they support school choice and just 22% were against. Importantly, the numbers varied little across sub-groups: 69% of 18-24 year-olds were in favor as were 68% of 55-64 year-olds; 68% of whites were in favor, while 71% of blacks supported the concept.

A survey conducted by Beck Research found very similar results. Released in January, the poll reveals that nationally 73% of Latinos and 67% of African-Americans back “the broad concept of school choice,” as do 75% of millennials.

It’s important to note that both polls were taken before the coronavirus reared its ugly head. There is no doubt that the favorable numbers have increased, very possibly significantly. In fact, one recent poll showed that 40 percent of families are more likely to homeschool or virtual school after experiencing the lockdown.

Education, like food, is essential for human existence. Leaving either up to a government monopoly, which has absolutely no incentive to improve the quality of its product, can have pernicious consequences on consumers and, indeed, all citizens.

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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.