On the whole, neoliberalization is hardest on the poor. Market choice does, however, favor those who already have the education, wealth, and wherewithal to plan, coordinate, and execute moving their children to the optimal educational setting. This means the big beneficiaries of school of choice are often the rich. For instance, when Nevada recently passed an aggressive school-of-choice system the result was that the vast majority of those able to take advantage of it came from the richest areas of Reno and Las Vegas. As money is pulled from failing schools and funneled into succeeding ones, wealth can actually be redistributed by the state up the socioeconomic ladder.
Market competition in the context of schools thus opens the possibility for a vicious cycle in which weak and low-performing communities are punished for their failings and wealthy communities receive greater and greater funding advantages. Americans should ask themselves a basic question of justice when it comes to the education system: Should it be organized around a model in which the more you win the more you get, and the more you lose the less you are given? Markets are by their nature non-egalitarian. For this reason, neoliberalization has been one of the biggest factors contributing to the growing inequalities and diminishment of the middle and lower classes.
A common neoliberal response to this is simply to say that economic inequality is the cost paid for individual liberty and personal responsibility. But the problem is that this discourse of individualism followed to its logical conclusion eliminates any public goods whatsoever. For example, if student funds are portable based on consumption choices, why shouldn’t the growing number of childless taxpayers be able to move their funding outside the education system entirely toward goods they actually consume, like dog parks or public golf courses?
This is the logical conclusion of Margaret Thatcher’s famous neoliberal pronouncement that “there is no such thing as society” but only “individual men and women.” The problem with this way of thinking is that education is not simply another commodity to buy and sell on a market. It is a shared good. Free societies need educated members to intelligently and critically deliberate over public life, select representatives, and help guide policy decisions. Market freedom is thus in tension with the freedom of democratic participation.
Many people recognize this fact and for that reason favor coordinating action and sharing costs through the government when it comes to goods like education, defense, public parks, transportation, public health, and the environment. Yet forming a shared collective action through government or a labor organization is the one kind of individual freedom that neoliberal philosophy does not tolerate. As the preeminent historian of neoliberalism, David Harvey, puts it, “neoliberals have to put strong limits on democratic governance … while individuals are supposedly free to choose, they are not supposed to choose to construct strong collective institutions.”