Boortz on School Choice…

I’m not sure why, but I’ve been listening to a lot of conservative talk radio lately. I guess I just like to hear different viewpoints as they give me the chance to refine and revise my own thinking about topics across the political spectrum. 

What’s always interesting is the animosity that most right wing talk show hosts hold toward public education. Ranting against unions, pushing for increased accountability, and extolling the virtues of vouchers is standard fare for fellas like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Neal Boortz came across my radio dial this week talking about school choice. Using the example of big telephone companies, Boortz was arguing that competition always benefits consumers.  Boortz’s thinking—which echoes the thinking of most school choice advocates—went something like this:

When the telephone industry was deregulated, large monopolies were broken up.  As a result, new features like call waiting and call forwarding were introduced and prices were slashed by companies trying to earn customers. Our lives are now better because we’ve got a range of providers to choose from and we can switch to new competitors whenever we are dissatisfied with our current service.

Public schools, therefore, should be ‘deregulated,’ as they are one of America’s last great monopolies. If school choice became a real option, new competitors would surface offering improved services for a lower price in an attempt to earn customers. The pressure of competition would lead to increased achievement, as real accountability would finally be introduced into education.

Boortz’s thinking resonated with me, considering that I’ve spent the past two weeks teaching sixth graders the difference between capitalism and communism.  "Capitalism is great because competition leads to better products or lower prices…or both!"  I’ve said time and again. "Either way, customers benefit."

But there are several flaws in his assumption that competition will work in education. Most importantly, he ignores the consequences of "failing competitiors." As a consumer, I couldn’t care less when a company goes out of business. While the owner may end up bankrupt and employees may be intially out of work, the impact of that failure is contained. There are no real implications for those beyond the immediate "store family." 

In education, "failing competitors" are schools serving children. Are we truly ready to let capitalist principles identify the strongest school models—and to watch the weakest struggle—knowing that the education of students is at stake? How do we justify our determination to ‘leave no child behind’ with the reality that in a more ‘business-like’ approach to education, some students will be learning in schools that can’t compete?

Better yet, does introducing a business model to education further ensure that schools for the poor will never match schools for the wealthy? After all, in a capitalist society, businesses regularly offer higher end services to customers willing to pony up the cash. Can you imagine poor families ‘window-shopping’ for schools, wishing they could afford something other than the Wal-Mart brand for once?

To use Boortz’s analogy, there are millions of Americans who can’t afford call waiting or forwarding.  (Who are we kidding—there are plenty of Americans who can’t even afford a phone.) If we shift towards school choice, won’t "choice" be heavily dependent on socio-economic background?  Are we okay with that as a people?  Is that in the best interest of our country?  Our economy?  Our democracy?

3 comments

  1. Mister Snitch

    Have to agree with the first commenter: School monopolies are ALREADY failing. Monopolies always produce inferior products. It’s a lesson of history, and certainly not unique to schools. The answer to better products has ALWAYS (as in, ALWAYS) been open markets and competition. The only way to not see this is to decide to not see this.
    “So expensive, in fact, that private business simply can’t, with few exceptions, do it properly.”
    Completely untrue and (notably) unsupported by evidence.
    “Choice? Yes. Parents can make the choice to get involved, positively, in their children’s educations and in the operation of their schools”
    This is like saying if you don’t like the food in the restaurant, go back in the kitchen and help the cook. INcredible. OF COURSE parents should care about and spend time with their kids. But what an incredible and arrogant statement – the failing education system IS THE PARENTS’ FAULT?? And yet, this blameshifting and guilt is the tactic so typically used to defend this bloated, corrupt democracy.

  2. Mike

    It may be useful to consider that there are very good reasons why our public school system has evolved to its current state. Among them is that running schools in terms of facilities and supplies is extraordinarily expensive. So expensive, in fact, that private business simply can’t, with few exceptions, do it properly. Yes, there are those privately funded schools with decent facilities, but those are limited in the number of students they accept, and cannot offer the range of activities that the average public school offers. Indeed, many private schools sue their local governments for access to activites such as sports, band, choir, dance, etc., books and various other supplies for their students.
    Should the wildest dreams of the voucher crowd come to fruition, we’d find private schools popping up in church basements, abandoned storefronts, condemned school buildings, and dilapidated warehouses throughout the nation. And who would teach in these paragons of capitalism? People willing to accept starvation wages, perhaps well intentioned, perhaps merely willing to accept the ideology, religious or otherwise, of their “schools.” Would there be education requirements for teachers? certification? Criminal records checks? Unlikely, as private schools have no such strictures.
    Great! We’ll buy computer programs and engage in direct instruction. We don’ need no stinkin’ teachers!
    And in the meantime, public schools will be bleeding money, which will have a significant negative effect on their ability to do their jobs. They’ll have no choice–they have to remain open and serve every student who knocks on the front door. Private schools can open and fold as the free market dictates, and they will open and fold with stunning rapidity, leaving wasted years of kid’s learning lives in the dust, while true accountability remains with the public schools, on your corner, in your town, taught by your friends and neighbors, and by the school boards you can elect or turn out of office, just as it always has.
    Choice? Yes. Parents can make the choice to get involved, positively, in their children’s educations and in the operation of their schools. Students can make the choice to be involved in their own educations and to take advantage of the many opportunities their schools daily provide.
    There are indeed some fine private schools, but in a voucher laden, free market for private schools, many private school students will find themselves in the same predicament as hour old McDonald’s hamburgers: relegated to the education trash bin when those running private schools learn in short order that running a school is not, inherently, a for profit enterprise.

  3. Dave Johnston

    I thought this was an interesting post. You need to remember that there are ALREADY failing schools. In California where I live, almost 60% of students test below grade level in Language Arts or Math. There are some schools where it is over 90% of kids. Those schools are already failing, but without any choices, those children are stuck there.
    I don’t believe the business analogy of education holds up 100%, but I do think that school choice creates an incentive for public schools to improve that simply isn’t there in the current system.
    Dave