Free Market Not the Answer for Education's Woes

In opinion piece, Bethlehem Area superintendent and Lehigh professor write that the profit motive of charter schools "erode the public good" of public education.


By Joseph Roy and George White

America's public schools have played a role in reducing inequality and increasing the bonds between people of diverse backgrounds. Yet, as we struggle through a particularly partisan era, a period in which the middle class is shrinking and income inequality is increasing, there is a growing movement to privatize public schools. Earlier this month, the Philadelphia School District announced that even more of the city's public schools will be given to charter organizations this fall, even though only 29 percent of the 80 charter schools met benchmarks.

Today, one-third of the nation's charter schools are being operated by private education management organizations, and this proportion grows each year. In Michigan, close to 80 percent of charter schools are operated by private for-profit organizations. Our tax dollars are supporting these operations not for the good of our children but for the good of shareholders.

America's market-based economy has successfully encouraged entrepreneurship, creativity, and commerce, and delivered a high standard of living. So it is understandable that some would consider a market-based response to overhaul an educational system turning out consistently low assessment scores in reading and mathematics. But when the economy extends into the arena of public goods and services, individual profit motive supplants the "common good."

Injecting market principles into public education through vouchers, publicly funded private-school scholarships, and publicly funded charter schools run by for-profit businesses undermines our nation's historical commitment to public education for the public good. Plus, there is no convincing evidence that competition in education improves student learning.

The profit motive erodes the common good. Public education - like roads, voting, jury duty, national security, and police and fire protection - cannot be outsourced to private entities without corrupting and undermining our social contract. That contract, in essence, says, "I will give up some of my absolute liberty in exchange for a safer, more secure life and community."

By agreeing to live by the social contract, we also agree to the government's power to enforce the law. We choose not to turn law enforcement over to the marketplace, even if a privatized police force would cost less and stimulate entrepreneurial enterprises, because the essential nature of law enforcement would be corrupted.

Similarly, public education exists for the common good. It upholds the ideal that all people can come together to learn and to live. Public schools provide an educated citizenry and workers. This is not a product that can be bought and sold. It is, however, the means by which achievement gaps are closed, and American innovation and productivity are invigorated. It is how we remain competitive in a global economy.

In a country that is increasingly diverse, we need to revitalize those institutions that strengthen our bonds of citizenry and that reinforce the social contract. Public schools are the cornerstone of American citizenry and should not be bought and sold in the interest of corporate profits. Yes, we need to fix our education system through a variety of efforts, including modifying school governance, limiting the impact of unions, being more creative in how schools operate, and providing greater choices within the public system. But the free market is not the answer.

Joseph Roy is superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District (jroy@beth.k12.pa.us). George White is the Iacocca professor of education and director of the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders at Lehigh University (gpw1@lehigh.edu).

This op-ed piece originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Feb. 27. Reproduced with permission.


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