Noah Singman (nsingman) and I (and several others, as well) are bouncing back and forth on education funding in a comment thread on , which you can see in its entirety here. I wanted to drag a particular part of this discussion back to the top of the board, though, because I don’t want it to get buried. For those just joining us, Noah is a Libertarian – and one whose intelligence I respect a great deal, by the way – and what has asserted itself is the idea of government funding of ed vs. a pure free market approach. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so I’d encourage you to read what he has to say for himself – I don’t want to be guilty of mischaracterizing or setting up a straw man here, because the question deserves serious attention, not rhetorical posturing. Even to the extent that I disagree with Noah’s stance, it’s important that we talk about it because there are those in Washington, I think, who are interested in moving us toward something like what our Libertarian friends support.
Anyway, Noah says, essentially: “I don’t support [state funding of education] politically, because I don’t believe that education should be provided by the government. However, unlike federal funding, state funding of education is clearly constitutionally valid.”
So this means that in principle you’d oppose local funding as well, then. Which is the pure Lib line, and you’d argue that ed ought to be a for-profit competitive business like anything else.
Fair enough. But it also leads me around to a question that some of my other Lib-leaning buddies have never parsed to my satisfaction. There’s a real glorification of the business world implicit in all this that I buy a whole lot less than I did before I actually worked in a few big businesses.
To wit, the dynamics of that pure-biz environment are inherently geared toward providing as little as possible – you will never provide X for $Y if you can get away with providing X-1 for Y$. The motivation, driven by the basic principles of economics, is always toward selling less for more. Maximize the ratio of revenue to cost, etc. (I’m going to do this without resorting to the Enron argument, by the way, even though I worked at US West before it was bought by Qwest, and corporate bad behavior watchers here might note that Q was the company that gave us Joe Nacchio.)
You might respond that competition solves this (and here please correct me if I misstate your position – I’m drawing on debates I’ve had with other Libertarians in the past, and might miss a nuance or two).
I’d say no, it doesn’t, because in this kind of environment you eventually work your way to a state of market equilibrium where ed product becomes commodified. All the cost that can be driven out, given the technology, market dynamics and best practices of the moment, has been, and you now have a few large providers (this market will inherently favor large companies because they’ll be best positioned to minimize HR costs and to capitalize on economies of scale in procurement – in many ways this would be similar to the retail bookstore sector) offering essentially the same service at the same price. So your ed choices (unless you’re wealthy) are going to be between Wal*Mart Elementary and K*Mart Elementary. McDonald’s and BK. Bud and Coors. Lowest common denominator.
You can easily reply that we already have plenty of crappy lowest common denominator education in America, and not only will I agree with you, I’ll give you the addresses of some schools you can visit that will prove your point in spades.
However, arguing that we can get crap a lot cheaper than we are now (no, this isn’t what Noah would say, this is me briefly engaging in rhetorical posturing) doesn’t solve my problem, which is that we need an outstanding educational system, not a cheap and efficient one. And the ed systems that are kicking our asses on all measures around the globe look more like centralized government systems than they do free market systems, unless you’re aware of a nation that I haven’t seen yet.
I’m a pretty strict constructionist myself on most Constitutional issues, and have plenty of faith in the power of business to solve problems. But in a lot of cases I find that my deep-seated philosophical notions run headlong into real-world dynamics that the philosophies don’t account for. I console myself that no theory of economics or governance ever concocted works in the real world quite like it works on paper, so I’m always open to the idea that I might have to consider practical measures that I’m philosophically uncomfortable with. No matter how many different directions I come at the education issue from (and here I should note that since I have a BA, an MA, a PhD, and have taught at six colleges and universities, so I’ve had ample opportunity to think about various problems and their equally various possible solutions), I just can’t see how going the free market route makes anything better. When I think about what I know about the worlds of education and business, all I see is a trainwreck.
My best guess about a fully privatized US educational system is so dire that even the concept of “more government involvement” doesn’t scare me in comparison.