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?