Emerging market in public education is a good thing

apple marketWords such as voucher, privatization, profit and corporation are often used as weapons by individuals and groups who oppose parental empowerment and school choice. Using words as weapons is especially common during periods of significant social change – we all do it – but the practice undermines civic discourse and makes finding common ground more difficult.

“Market” is another term school choice opponents use to connote evil, but our way of life is largely based on markets, and public education is increasingly embracing market processes as customized teaching and learning become more common. Our challenge moving forward is regulating public education markets in ways that maximizes their effectiveness and efficiency.

People access products and services in one of two ways. Either their government assigns them, or they choose for themselves. In the United States, we have historically allowed citizens to choose, and this system of provider and consumer choice is a “market.”

In a goods and services market, providers decide which goods and services they want to sell, and consumers choose those they want to buy. Markets, when implemented properly, are preferable to assignment systems because they better utilize people’s knowledge, skills and motivation. Citizens are allowed to use their own experiences and judgments when making selling and purchasing decisions, and this citizen empowerment maximizes the universe of ideas from which improvement and innovation derive.

When governments assign products and services to their citizens, they rely on a small group of people to decide what to offer. This top-down approach is less open, transparent and effective than the decision-making that occurs in markets, and it discourages creativity. This is why most improvements in goods and services emerge from market systems rather than government assignment systems.

Markets allow providers to learn from consumers. When governments dictate to consumers what goods and services they may have, their citizens’ true wants and needs are not fully considered. The voice of the customer is silent. But when consumers are empowered to choose for themselves, providers learn from these choices and adjust accordingly. In markets, this necessity to meet customers’ needs drives innovation and continuous improvement.

Markets are also prevalent in politics and science. Democracy is a market-based political system. In democracies, citizens are presented with options and choose the candidates or ballot initiatives they prefer.

In science, ideas compete for dominance and scientists compare the research supporting these competing ideas and over time choose the ones they prefer. Climate change is an example of an idea that after a prolonged period of research and debate became the preferred choice of scientists.

Since the early 1980s, public education has been adding market features to its system of connecting students with schools. Magnet schools, home-schooling, charter schools, virtual schools, career academies, dual enrollment, and scholarships and vouchers to attend private schools are providing families with more choices. In Florida, 1.55 million students, out of a total student population of 3.2 million, are now attending a school other than their assigned neighborhood school, and this trend is accelerating.

The concept of a “free” market is a myth. All markets are regulated, and poorly regulated markets are less effective than well-regulated markets. The recent global financial crisis was exacerbated by ineffective regulation of our financial markets. The political market in the United States was less effective in 1900 because women were prevented from voting. Science in the Soviet Union was undermined when the government denied its scientists the freedom to embrace ideas inconsistent with communism.

Public education’s emerging markets need to be well regulated. But given how much diversity we’re seeing in new providers, creating a regulatory framework that protects students and the public good without undermining innovation and improvement will be challenging. For example: Should all K-12 students, including home- and private-school students, be required to take the same state literacy exams? Should all schools – public, private, virtual, charter – operate under the same regulations, or should publicly- and privately-funded schools be regulated differently? Should the amount of public funds a private school receives influence how it is regulated? If scholarship and voucher students are required to take the same state assessments as district students, should they also receive the same amount of public funding?

Our chances of finding the best answers to these complex questions will be enhanced if the various warring factions in public education agree to stop using words as weapons and enter into a collaborative dialogue in good faith.

The expansion of market processes in public education is a given. Our task now is to ensure these processes benefit students and the public good.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.