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We’ll dig down into this Current Affairs vituperation of Trump’s choice of Education Secretary in some more detail later (I’m off to class now). But two points in this article I’d like to make quite clearly and simply. The author starts out by trying to understand and articulate (in true Turing Test fashion) what the arguments made by proponents of school choice are. And then he goes off the rails.

  1. Is this the Mount Rushmore of Straw Men or what?

Introducing a profit motive into schooling offers a powerful incentive for schools to offer a great product. If there is money to be made on being a good school, you can bet businesses will want to provide great schools. Thus private, for-profit schools with vouchers are a highly efficient way of delivering the best-quality education.”

Now, I spent my early career in economics studying the differences between private and public schools, and enmeshing myself in the literature at the time. Where does this Duex ex Machina of FOR PROFIT come from? The argument in favor of school choice is not an argument for running schools for profit. If it turns out that this is what people end up wanting, so be it – but the argument for school choice is exactly that. Allow choices of schools. Allow choices among “public” schools. Allow a diversity of teaching and education methods across schools. Separate government funding and support for schooling from government operation of schooling. Now, I happen to think the author is not quite right on the concerns about the incentives of for-profit schools, but let’s grant that. To introduce vouchers and choice is NOT at all the same as suggesting we create a network of for-profit schools. There are thousands of Catholic schools around the country that are clearly not run for-profit. And think of how choice works in the college sector. What share of overall student enrollments end up in “for-profit” schools (I actually think schools like my own are “for-profit” and should be taxed, but that is for another day). Virtually none, despite what the news hysteria may lead you to believe. So, now that we start with a totally disingenuous argument about the purpose of school choice, it’s hard to consider the rest.

2. He ends the piece with:

“Introducing an incentive to make money will necessarily mean exploiting and neglecting the poor, whose “choices” are highly constrained by their circumstances. I fear privatization not because of some mystical devotion to the inefficiencies of government but because I fear the erosion of the idea of education as something that isn’t win-win, that we give to children because they deserve it rather than because we can profit from it. I worry that the sort of people who run things “like a business” do not really care about children very much, and are motivated by the wrong incentives. I am concerned about what would happen if they ever faced a choice between doing the right thing and doing the lucrative thing. It seems a fragile and fantastical (almost religious) hope to think that a market for schools will produce good schools rather than simply a new means for parasitic corporations to engorge themselves on government money. However bad our public schools may be, I will always trust those who see children as an ends above those who see them as a means.”

Well, considering the straw man in quote 1, I suppose I can’t begrudge the thoughts in quote 2. But that said, we are now living in a world where intentions matter. Well, excuse me while I clear the vomit out of my mouth. Who the heck gets to say that the intentions of the current government schooling monopoly are anything other than exactly the same fragile and fantastical hope that government provision of schools sees kids as ends. Is there ANY evidence that government employees, government schools, educrats and the like see kids as anything other than means? Would there be fewer motivated people who care about kids in a private school system? In my Catholic grammar and high schools, the clergy who taught us took preposterous low pay to fulfill their vocations – I can’t imagine any group of people being more committed to seeing the kids develop and as ends to be cared about rather than a means to something else. I suppose Sister Margaret can be accused of seeing me as an easy means to make her way quickly through the pearly gates – but if you want to go down that path, then tell me how the motivated passionate public school teacher who loves children is any different?

I’m sorry folks, but this sort of argument, if that is what you call it, is what is driving the divide in this country. And this guy wants it that way. I will not soften my view on that.

I address all of his other points in various other posts here at TUW, I’ll send up links to those later on.

One Response to “Uninvited from Dinner Parties, Episode 386807”

  1. Ally says:

    1. Scott Alexander has an interesting post on his blog today responding to this article: http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/12/02/contra-robinson-on-schooling/

    He doesn’t allude to the strawman you point to in point 1 above, although does hint that it wouldn’t hurt for Nathan Robinson to read a textbook on Public Choice.

    2. “The argument in favor of school choice is not an argument for running schools for profit.”
    “Separate government funding and support for schooling from government operation of schooling.”

    I have found that a remarkably large number of people seem to really struggle to grasp this point.

    I remember trying to have a discussion with some of my friends on Facebook about government versus private provision of medical care. I explicitly stated up front that I wanted to separate the questions of who pays for the medical care and who provides the medical care. All but two of my interlocutors failed to see the distinction or why one would want to make such a distinction. Most of the arguments that were presented in response to the question “Why is the government best placed to run hospitals?” were arguments in favour of ‘government’ (read ‘taxpayer’) funding of hospitals, rather than government administration of hospitals.

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