How School Choice Turns Education Into a Commodity

Schools are a public good that extreme market proliferation would eventually destroy.

Betsy DeVos looks skeptical
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Buoyed by Donald Trump’s championing of a voucher system—and cheered on by his education secretary Betsy DeVos—Arizona just passed one of the country's most thoroughgoing policies in favor of so-called “school of choice.” The legislation signed by Governor Doug Ducey allows students who withdraw from the public system to use their share of state funding for private school, homeschooling, or online education.

Making educational funding “portable” is part of a much wider political movement that began in the 1970s—known to scholars as neoliberalism—which views the creation of markets as necessary for the existence of individual liberty. In the neoliberal view, if your public institutions and spaces don’t resemble markets, with a range of consumer options, then you aren’t really free. The goal of neoliberalism is thereby to rollback the state, privatize public services, or (as in the case of vouchers) engineer forms of consumer choice and market discipline in the public sector.

DeVos is a fervent believer in neoliberalizing education—spending millions of dollars on and devoting herself to political activism for the spread of voucher-system schooling. In a speech on educational reform from 2015, DeVos expressed her long-held view that the public-school system needs to be reengineered by the government to mimic a market. The failure to do so, she warned, would be the stagnation of an education system run monopolistically by the government:

We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia, or Uber. We won’t see any real innovation that benefits more than a handful of students.

Many Americans now find DeVos’s neoliberal way of thinking commonsensical. After all, people have the daily experience of being able to choose competing consumer products on a market. Likewise, many Americans rightly admire entrepreneurial pluck. Shouldn’t the intelligence and creativity of Silicon Valley’s markets be allowed to cascade down over public education, washing the system clean of its encrusted bureaucracy?

What much fewer people realize is that the argument over “school of choice” is only the latest chapter in a decades-long political struggle between two models of freedom—one based on market choice and the other based on democratic participation. Neoliberals like DeVos often assume that organizing public spaces like a market must lead to beneficial outcomes. But in doing so, advocates of school of choice ignore the political ramifications of the marketization of shared goods like the educational system.

The first point to consider when weighing whether or not to marketize the public school system is that markets always have winners and losers. In the private sector, the role of competition is often positive. For example, Friendster, the early reigning king of social networks, failed to create a format that people found as useful and attractive as Facebook. The result was that it eventually vanished.

When businesses like Friendster fail, no significant public damage is done. Indeed, it is arguably a salutary form of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” which is a feature of market innovation. But should all goods in a society be subjected to the forces of creative destruction? What happens to a community when its public schools are defunded or closed because they could not “compete” in a marketized environment?

In Detroit (where DeVos played a big role in introducing school choice) two decades of this marketization has led to extreme defunding and closing of public schools; the funneling of taxpayer money toward for-profit charter ventures; economically disadvantaged parents with worse options than when the neoliberal social experiment began; and finally, no significant increase in student performance. Indeed, some zones of Detroit are now educational deserts where parents and children have to travel exorbitant miles and hours for their children to attend school.

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.”

Neoliberalism is thereby fundamentally opposed to any democratic, individual choices that seek to constrain markets—be it teachers unions or simply majority decisions about how to fund and shape public schools. Indeed, historically speaking, neoliberal attempts to marketize public goods are often unpopular and so have required non-majoritarian institutions like the courts, the World Bank, or even strong men and authoritarians (like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet) to enact policies against the will of the majority. Authoritarianism and market freedoms can and often do go together. There is a basic tension between neoliberal market choice and democratic freedom to shape one’s community in ways that do not conform to market logic.

Of course, thoughtful advocates of school choice might argue that while perhaps there are reasons to be skeptical of neoliberal theory, there are many schools of choice that in practice are phenomenal sites for educational innovation. Such advocates might point to cases of successful charter schools in poorer communities—for example, the Knowledge Is Power Program (or “KIPP”) charter schools across the country. Although KIPP is nonprofit, it is still engaged in the project of neoliberalizing public goods by introducing consumer choice as a form of subjecting the school system to a kind of market discipline.

KIPP is not without its critics, but there is also undeniable merit in efforts to experiment with education on a more local level (some of these carried out by intelligent well-meaning teachers and administrators at charter schools). Rejecting neoliberal policies like school choice does not mean that people such as DeVos and charter-school employees who are attracted to experimentation and less centralization of curriculum don’t have a point. America’s public schools—like all institutions—are in constant need of reform, rejuvenation, and innovation.

But debates about “freedom” and educational reform might be more constructive if participants center their questions around democratic freedoms—the freedom of every citizen to access education and the freedom of various communities to shape what that education looks like. Arguments over democratic freedom might contest how much of curriculum decision-making can be taken rightfully by the federal government versus devolution onto localities. Likewise, disagreements over democratic freedom could involve constructive debates over whether and how to fund private religious schools.

Educational policy in democratic societies should be subject to spirited and even intense debate and disagreement. Yet attempts to reduce freedom to markets and consumer choice remains in serious tension with democratic liberties and ideals of self-government. Future debates might be no less vigorous while also seeking alternatives to a simplistic equivalency between markets and “choice.”