The Free-Market Alternative To Education Socialism

Robert Holland The Heartland Institute
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More than a few parents active in the fight to end Common Core’s suffocating grip on elementary and secondary education are targeting privatization as their enemy. They object to corporate groups seeking to redefine education as workforce preparation and to vendors hawking instructional materials for a curriculum most parents and many teachers do not favor.

Actually, Common Core is not at all about privatization. Instead, it is the opposite: a collaboration of powerful economic interests and big government to push a single-minded agenda on the public schools. Schools remain statist entities, more centrally controlled than ever.

In reality, true privatization could be the way for citizens to regain control of their local schools from the scourge of socialism that has been dragging down American education for decades.

Imagine, if you can, denationalization of education (no more standards imposed by distant bureaucrats) coupled with complete privatization of schools and universities, from kindergarten through graduate school. Yes, that would mean total separation of school and state.

Libertarian intellectual Richard Ebeling, distinguished professor of ethics and free enterprise leadership at The Citadel, recently envisioned several ways to achieve true privatization of education.

At the primary, middle, and high school levels, control of schools might be transferred to teachers and staff members who would become shareholders with a vested interest in offering the substantive education most parents want for their children. Or the schools might be auctioned to entrepreneurs with an incentive to run them with efficiency and pizazz so families would want to become customers.

Families could afford to pay directly for private schools because, with government out of the picture, all the taxes earmarked for education would be repealed. That would amount to a huge savings in family budgets because it is not uncommon for schooling to be the largest single expenditure in a local government budget.

In a competitive education marketplace, supply-side incentives would encourage upgrades in the types and quality of schools available for families, something that does not happen under socialized education. Moreover, an end to the education degree and certification racket would mean school principals would be free to hire and supervise knowledgeable teachers without teachers unions and bureaucracies imposing seniority-based rules that lock in mediocrity and make it difficult or even impossible to remove demonstrably bad teachers.

A similar process would occur in higher education, with the state-controlled colleges and universities being sold and the numerous grants and subsidies lavished on nominally private institutions being terminated. Subsequently, all taxes propping up this system would be repealed, with massive tax relief again boosting family budgets so parents could afford to purchase educational services they deem worthwhile for their children.

In a thought-provoking article for the Future of Freedom Foundation (“Educational Socialism Versus the Free Market”), Ebeling argues if schools and colleges were privatized in this manner and had to provide the kind of education parents and students considered to be worth the price of tuition, much of today’s political correctness and ideologically driven courses would yield to classes and subjects far more in line with traditional education.

Ebeling notes academe has gone from being an open marketplace of competing ideas, freely discussed, to an arena of collectivist indoctrination where trashing of “traditional American ideals of individualism, free enterprise, and constitutionally limited government” is commonplace. With lifetime tenure and tax-supported salaries, faculty members answer to no one but themselves as they instill in young people jaundiced views of foundational values such as “freedom, self-responsibility, and the character and values of a free society.”

This corrosive outlook filters down to K–12 schooling via collegiate-level teacher preparation and other avenues, and it is all the more troubling because these are the most impressionable years when bad ideas may become permanent core beliefs.

No doubt, mere mention of privatization will provoke conniption fits within the education establishment. As if on cue, the Huffington Post ran a teacher/blogger’s article on May 16 asserting free enterprise will never, ever work in K–12 education. The basis of Peter Greene’s piece was that some charter schools had closed their doors, supposedly proving they are heartless businesses that do not care about special-needs children. Never mind that charters are public schools operating squarely within the governmental system and are supposed to close when they fail to deliver promised results.

A wholesale transfer of public schools and colleges to private hands will not happen overnight. However, the accumulating success of private choice made available through such mechanisms as vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and Education Savings Accounts is beginning to show what is possible. Moreover, a current model already demonstrates a parent-centered free-market approach works well in addressing the needs of all kinds of children. That model is homeschooling, which has doubled its numbers of children over the past decade and booms all the more with each new federal usurpation of control over education policy.

Robert Holland (holland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.