Fallacy

Many of you probably read John Stossel’s polemic in the Sunday Wisconsin State Journal (9/3/06). I’d reprint here, but I don’t want to give it a wider readership than it already has. Instead I want to say few words about a central fallacy in the thinking of Stossel (and many others who wish to destroy public education). Contrary to their rhetoric, PUBLIC EDUCATION IS NOT A MONOPOLY.
I’m not talking about the fact that many fine non-public schools thrive (although that’s true), what I want to do is remind people of the important distinctions between the public and private spheres, between government and enterprise (these distinctions aren’t quite the same, but they are close enough for the purposes here). Education is a public matter, a government function because we have for 150 years (more-or-less, depending on the state and locality) we have wanted it that way.
There were and are many good reasons why this is the case. At base, education is – like garbage disposal, safe food and drugs, efficient roads, airline safety, clean water and much else – too important to be left to the vagaries of the market. At one point Stossel quotes an economist praising the “unpredictability” of the market as a source of innovation. That’s fine for producing a better mousetrap, but in schools (as in all the other examples listed) the stakes are too high to let greed be the motive force. I hear “unpredictability” and think of the children in scam voucher schools who lost out so someone could profit. The successes and innovations of capitalism are the successes of greed. The failures of capitalism are the failures of greed. Tainted milk, like bad charter schools in Milwaukee, was profitable; the market did its work by inducing more people to sell tainted milk. It isn’t the all powerful and all wise market that makes sure our children have safe milk — profit is profit, the market doesn’t care — it is the government. Schools were once all private or semi-private, but this – like tainted milk – was not satisfactory and in a democracy things that aren’t satisfactory can be changed.
Democracy is one key to why education is a public matter. If you read the words of those 19th and early 20th century men and women who created and expanded public education, you can sense both their fears and faith. Democratic self-government was a new thing and many scoffed at the idea that “the masses” were capable of the tasks. There was a very real fear of rule by the ignorant mob. But there was also a faith that given the tools their fellow-countrymen (and later women) would be up to the job. The most basic tool was literacy and more broadly education. The state of our political culture may induce many to think that these optimists were wrong about the potential for self-government or perhaps that public education has failed in this mission. I feel that way sometimes, but the republic has survived and the experiment isn’t over. I don’t think we should abandon the basic idea, I think we should work to improve our execution. And since public education is democratically governed (another reason that terming it monopoly is a misnomer), we have the means to make our calls for improvement heard.
Democracy also requires a sense of belonging to the community and the nation. There has long been a tension between the Pluribus and the Unum. America has always been diverse and group identities have threatened to overwhelm a sense of common purpose. When German children went to German schools and Presbyterian children went to Presbyterian schools and rich children went to elite schools and many children went to no school at all (or to charity schools), there was very little to bind them together and much to pull them apart. By making schools public and “common,” the school promoters sought to bolster the Unum. We also struggle with these issues and have arrived in a slightly different place where most of us desire schools to respect group identities, teach respect for group identities (multiculturalism) as well cultivate our commonalities. Finding the balance is not easy and never finished. That cultivating the common is necessary and that the best place to do this is in democratically controlled public schools seems beyond question to me.
Interestingly, capitalism is another reason why public education was considered essential to the health of the nation. There has always been a desire for trained workers and for people to be trained for work, but that isn’t the most interesting or important way that public schools support capitalism. Capitalism is a system of winners and losers. Democracy depends on a rough sense of egalitarianism – “All men are created equal.” So there is another tension here and public education helps resolve it. With free public education, equality becomes “equality of opportunity” and eventually “equality of educational opportunity” (as in the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974). The promise (unfulfilled to a great degree) of equality of opportunity through education further binds the nation together, diffuses the resentments of existing inequalities and provides hope for mobility. Without this, capitalism would be constantly threatened by the “losers.”
Disciples of the market like Stossel rarely address a basic premise of their philosophy and that is that greed and only greed can produce progress and improvement. They see schools that aren’t as good as they should or must be and see “introducing market forces” as the only solution. I don’t hold this dark view of human nature or society. I think that we can be genuinely altruistic; I think that we can work together (cooperation) instead against each other (competition) to produce better schools and a better world. The people who founded public education were far from perfect and filled with self-interested motives, but at the core most shared this belief and I would point to their creation (as imperfect as it is) as evidence that they were right.
TJM

11 thoughts on “Fallacy”

  1. Greed and competition beat back Hitler, built the railroads, highways and got us to the moon. Greed and competition got you the computer you typed your post on. Greed and competition is what has lavishly funded, to the tune of 10k per kid, the public school system.
    Yet, when business tries to interject itself into education, you cry foul.
    I also reject your usage of the word greed. Innovation and risk-taking in an effort to make money for yourself and your family is not greed, TJM.
    I do not condemn all public schools because of the failings of a few. Yet, because a few charter or vouchers schools might miss the mark, you condemn the whole lot.

  2. Let’s start with WWII, the Railroads, highways and the moon. Three out of four were accomplished primarily if not exclusively by governments. The fourth, railroads were built with massive government subsidies and direction. You are four for four in supporting my position. Thank you.
    Your comments om “greed” are funny, because Stossel (who I assume you defend) is a champion of greed (see: http://www.abcnewsstore.com/store/index.cfm?fuseaction=customer.product&product_code=S980203%2001&category_code=5 and http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1421). I recognize that greed and competition can contribute to progress and good, for the reasons I gave and more, i just don’t think education is the proper place for them to be at play.
    Far from “condemning” all voucher (or charter)schools I wrote of “many fine non-public schools.” I’m not a fan of vouchers, but do favor public charters in general.
    You really should read more carefully, you missed the big point and the details.
    TJM

  3. Four for four eh? Nice try.
    Indeed, all four of my examples involved the government. What you failed to realize, is that while the government did set up the funding and direction, it was private contractors and individuals who supplied the science and material. Unlike public schools, owned by the government, the government did not own tank making factories, or rocket making factories. Greedy private businesses competed for the bids.
    For your failed analysis to hold, you would have to prove that the government directly owned the companies that made the four examples I gave possible. Since that is not the case, I am 4 for 4 in refuting your argument.
    I also have a problem with the assertion that greed and competition are basically fine for everything except education. What makes education immune. The truth be told, and this may come as a shock to many, is that there is nothing inherently “special” about education. It is a process and body of knowledge that must be delivered. To put it on a pedestal as something so sacred that ugly things like greed and competition should be kept away from it is, well, snobby.

  4. I guess where I took issue with the article is the use of the word monopoly. I’m not sure I fully agree with the author.
    Mo•nop•o•ly
    1 : exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action
    2 : exclusive possession or control
    3 : a commodity controlled by one party
    4 : one that has a monopoly
    Exploring #3. Commodity: a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price
    So the real question: Would competition lower our ‘price’?
    To me, and you are welcome to disagree, public education is not a monopoly. It is a choice. Yet, even as I say that, I cringe, because I’m sure some readership will agree, it is in having advantages that would then make education a choice. I guess as well, we couldn’t consider it ‘public’ education if everyone didn’t have access.
    Yes, it is true we do not have a ‘choice’ in paying our property taxes but it costs $10K/ child to provide an opportunity within a community and >$30K / year to sustain each person in prison. I personally do not want others to forgo an opportunity due to life circumstance.
    School choice does exist and for me, (again, you are welcome to disagree) none of the current ‘competitors’ are offering a better commodity for a lesser price. Indeed, for home schooling or on-line options there is a cost of lost time, wages, materials, social interaction, technology and fees. While researching private options, operating costs are equal if not higher than public education.
    The State of Ohio has recent studies showing public education achievement higher than competitive schools which crumble annually due to lack of sustainable funding. But there are other private options as well: $23,000/year for one of the best K-12 educational campuses in the Cleveland area.
    Interesting don’t you think? Competition can actually lead to more profit and increase the ‘price’ of other community concerns as well.

  5. Mr. Schneider
    There’s really no point in a full history lesson here, your mind is made up and you just react to anyone who disagrees with you with simple-minded attacks, so this will be relatively short.
    First I want to restate the basic premise you obviously can’t grasp: There are some things that the government is better suited to do than the private sector and in the United States the consensus has long been that education (at least k-12) is one of them.
    Here is the World War II history lesson. The first fact that should be recognized is that the Soviet Union was as crucial (if not more so) to defeating Nazi Germany as the capitalist allies. So, yes a crucial portion of the war effort was “owned” by a government. Second, war production and all other aspects of the wartime economy were closely supervised and directed by a host of federal agencies, most prominently the War Production Board. So yes there was a profit motive for contractors, but they didn’t just throw whatever they wanted on the market, the provided to spec and cooperated with the government to get materials and labor, in research and production… If you follow your illogic then we could say that public schools are in the same way part of the market because they buy supplies from private companies and therefore it is the private companies and greed that are responsible for the successes and failures of public education. Last and far from least, the men and women who fought and died did not do so in the employ of General Motors, they served as employees of the United States. They were ill paid (little profit motive, much more money to be made in the home front wartime economy), but proud to serve their country.
    To close, I just want to again clarify that I wasn’t saying greed and competition were fine for everything but education (as you inexplicably thought I was), in fact I listed some things that I believe are the proper sphere of government, said there were more, you listed some more…In all these things history and even contemporary politics show that the majority of Americans have agreed and agree, that’s why we have public schools and food inspection, and a military, and, and, and… I do have to thank you again, this time for the best laugh I’ve had all week. Equating support for democratically governed public education with snobbery or elitism is pretty funny (and desperate).
    TJM

  6. Mr. Schneider
    There’s really no point in a full history lesson here, your mind is made up and you just react to anyone who disagrees with you with simple-minded attacks, so this will be relatively short.
    First I want to restate the basic premise you obviously can’t grasp: There are some things that the government is better suited to do than the private sector and in the United States the consensus has long been that education (at least k-12) is one of them.
    Here is the World War II history lesson. The first fact that should be recognized is that the Soviet Union was as crucial (if not more so) to defeating Nazi Germany as the capitalist allies. So, yes a crucial portion of the war effort was “owned” by a government. Second, war production and all other aspects of the wartime economy were closely supervised and directed by a host of federal agencies, most prominently the War Production Board. So yes there was a profit motive for contractors, but they didn’t just throw whatever they wanted on the market, they provided to government spec and cooperated with the government to get materials and labor, in research and production… If you follow your illogic then we could say that public schools are in the same way part of the market because they buy supplies from private companies and therefore it is the private companies and greed that are responsible for the successes and failures of public education. Last and far from least, the men and women who fought and died did not do so in the employ of General Motors, they served as employees of the United States. They were ill paid (little profit motive, much more money to be made in the home front wartime economy), but proud to serve their country.
    To close, I just want to again clarify that I wasn’t saying greed and competition were fine for everything but education (as you inexplicably thought I was), in fact I listed some things that I believe are the proper sphere of government, said there were more, you listed some more…In all these things history and even contemporary politics show that the majority of Americans have agreed and agree, that’s why we have public schools and food inspection, and a military, and, and, and… I do have to thank you again, this time for the best laugh I’ve had all week. Equating support for democratically governed public education with snobbery or elitism is pretty funny (and desperate).
    TJM

  7. I believe individuals, acting in their own best interests, within the framework of laws, will lead to a better society. In this case, a better educated society.
    When enough people honestly believe the governemnt won the war, got us to the moon, keeps our food safe and builds our roads, what’s to stop them from believing the government can raise their kids better too.

  8. People do not experience a spiritual transformation when they move from the private sector to the government’s employ, or vice versa. Why suppose that State (government, generally) employees are any less greedy than people in the private sector? Government employees may be more risk-averse and willing to use violence and threats of violence to accomplish their ends. That is all.
    I make less of the public/private distinction than most, and less of the for-profit/non-profit distinction. We are all public citizens and private individuals. “Profit” is a bookkeeping term, the difference between total revenues and total costs. If an organization has no line in its balance sheet for “profit”, all outlays must be attributed to “costs”. “Monopoly” is seldom absolute; public schools qualify. In most US States, employees of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME joint-venture enterprise called “public schools” occupy an exclusive position in receipt of the taxpayers’ pre-college education subsidy. Unions, even “public sector” unions like the NEA, AFT, and AFSCME are private 501-(c)5 corporations.
    Abundant evidence supports the following generalization: As institutions take from individual parents the power to determine for their own children what curriculum they pursue and how it is delivered, overall system performance falls. Policies which expand the range of options available to parents for their children’s education place control of education in the hands of people who know the children best and are most reliably concerned for their welfare.
    Belgium, Chile, The Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Ireland, The Netherlands, and Singapore subsidize a parent’s choice of school. TIMSS ranks Singapore tops in the world, and Belgium and the Netherlands among Europe’s top-performing countries. One US State, North Dakota, approximates the performance of Singapore. Few students in North Dakota attend private schools. The relevant differences between North Dakota and other States are a mean school district size under 500 students and, until recently, an age of compulsory attendance of 7. Small districts and latter compulsory attendance enhance parent control and so enhance overall system performance.

  9. americans are amazingly insular, public schools in other countries are the ones that are kicking american butt in the test scores. they are not private entities. whites no longer want to fund public schooling since the breakdown of official segregation, thats what the core reason of the attack on public ed of the last two generations

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