Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ideological blinders

Fascinating. From How School Choice Turns Education Into a Commodity by Jason Blakeley. Discussions about education can be exasperating because there is such a multiplicity of goals, assumptions and variability of knowledge.

Those who are engaged with the issue (i.e. those with children whose education they care about) can be passionate in their arguments regardless of how well founded the argument might be. Likewise, those who are at a distance (without children or post-education children) can be equally passionate though often in quite a different fashion - passionate from an ideological angle or passionate out of self-interest (being part of the education process themselves). Regardless, passion is not often a condition which facilitates polite exchanges or dispassionate consideration of issues.

All these problems (disagreement about goals, differing assumptions, low or uneven domain knowledge) are on display in Blakeley's article. He has an unacknowledged ideological argument to make and that ideology (and its associated portfolio of unexamined assumptions) informs the entire article to the exclusion of counterpoints. Blakeley is arguing against parental freedom and school choice. He wishes for all students to be compelled to attend the public schools of their area regardless of the performance of those schools.

Which is unfortunate because it comes across as strident, doctrinaire and ill-informed about an issue that is of great interest and concern and deserves to be argued better.

It is a meager article but these two passages were the one's that leapt out to me. They serve as a demonstration of just how radically people can differ on the most basic of things.
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?
There is so much on display here in these 137 words.

Let us, as a courtesy, ignore that the opposite of public schools is not necessarily private schools. There is, of course, an infinite continuum of alternatives: religious schools, home schooling, autonomous public schools, non-profit charter schools, etc. Blakeley is undermining the integrity of his argument by casting it as a straw man argument of public school versus commercial private schools.

Blakeley's first argument against this straw man is the complaint that markets "always have winners and losers". That sounds straight-forward but what is he actually claiming? There is a fallacy of equivocation. Is he arguing that not all institutions are permanent or is he arguing that market enabled education is zero-sum?

The first interpretation seems a non sequitur. Of course market-based schools are not permanent. Neither are public schools. Populations increase and decrease; densities shift from one part of the city to another; even cities can come close to disappearing (East St. Louis, IL, Trenton, NJ, Gary, IN, etc.). Chicago Public Schools has closed hundreds of schools. The fact that market-based companies come and then go seems irrelevant if public schools also come and go.

This irrelevance would seem to force us to conclude that Blakeley's objection is that market-based solutions are zero-sum. This is certainly one way of viewing the function of a market; a statist way. Free marketers would make a diametrically opposite claim: Market-based solutions are additive and productive - no-one loses. I think the issue here is that Blakeley (with his statist mindset) and free-marketers (with their unstated assumptions) are not communicating.

Free marketers take it for granted that there has to be competition and freedom to contract and enforcement of the law (including contract law). In this scenario, any agreement reached between customer and supplier has to axiomatically be net beneficial, otherwise they would not enter the agreement. The contract itself is a testament to mutuality.

To the statist mind, the concern is that the customer might not get everything they might want and that is viewed as a market failure. Of course, in a world of limited resources, that is nonsense. Neither the customer or the supplier gets everything they want, they only get as much as is acceptable to them. The statist mind is also concerned that there might not be real competition and that is a legitimate concern. In the medium term, all competitive systems tend to coalesce around an oligopolistic or monopolistic structure. In the long term, competition will always lead to displacement of formerly dominant companies (Western Electric, Bell Telephone, General Motors, Standard Oil Company, etc.).

Blakeley's first objection, that there are winners and losers, is moot whichever interpretation you accept. Schools open and close under both private or public structures. Competitive markets are the very opposite of zero-sum - competitive markets ensure that everyone gains.

Blakeley's next objection is equally mystifying: "When businesses like Friendster fail, no significant public damage is done." When businesses fail, people lose their jobs, capital is destroyed, savings are wiped out, pensions are lost, tax bases are eroded. The list of public damage when companies fail is extensive. Ask Detroit whether there is no public damage when companies fail.

The final mystifying position that Blakeley takes is "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?"

It seems as if Blakeley has argued himself into the position that schools should not improve. Blakeley is presenting the argument that schools will not close if they are public schools but that they might close if they are market-based schools.

The first assumption is clearly wrong. Public schools close all the time in vast numbers for tangled reasons of poor performance, population shifts, public expectations or decline in number of school children.

Blakeley also seems to be taking the position that it is bad if a market-based school closes because it is unable to meet the expectations of their customers.

The charitable interpretation would be that Blakeley wants schools to improve but not because of competition for parental choices but through centrally directed edicts and regulations. That is at least a logically consistent interpretation. But still a failing one. There are some truly stellar public schools around the nation, exemplified by Boston Latin School in Boston and Stuyvesant HS and Bronx HS of Science in New York and many prosperous suburban school systems produce outstanding results. Public schools can be excellent. But they are almost always excellent because they are meeting the demands and expectations of their most engaged and committed parents.

At the same time, there are innumerable examples of failing public school systems that fail precisely because they are driven by sheltered administrators who are not responsive to public demands.

This entire exercise of untangling the unstated assumptions reveals just how much conclusions are driven by ideology. Blakeley appears to have an underlying belief that market-based competition is inherently bad, even if it leads to school improvement, and that public administration of schools is inherently good, even if it leads to bad schools.

If the goal is to have improving schools which meet the needs and expectations of parents, does it matter whether that improvement comes through market-based competition or through regulatory means and public governance? I think that is a perfectly fair argument based on the agreed goal and there are pros and cons on both sides.

But to simply assume out of existence the viability of market solutions (despite the evidence that they can work) and to assume that there is no evidence that public schools do fail is an insult to the audience.

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