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Free market the key to school reform

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted January 31, 2005

A Wayne State University student recently demonstrated the predominant obstacle to public school reform: the liberal mind.

In his editorial, "Why the free market doesn't work for education," an incoherent and illogical defense of our educational status quo, Timothy Zessin neatly encapsulates liberals' gross misunderstanding of free market economics and by consequence their rationale for subjecting school children to ineffective socialist education policies.

A contributing writer to The South End, WSU's student newspaper, Mr. Zessin writes, "I'm sure you've seen the headlines: Detroit Public School students are disappearing in droves," stating that experts believe that by 2008 Detroit will face an "unprecedented budget deficit" as a result of the "mass exodus" of students from the city's public schools. And what, pray tell, is causing this sudden departure? Why, "the recent promotion of free market principles" in secondary education.

An extensive Internet search failed to substantiate Zessin's claim that Detroit students are currently fleeing public schools "in droves." Indeed, despite being approved by the Supreme Court in 2002, voucher programs have run into significant roadblocks as various state courts have moved to prohibit their implementation. However, we'll give Zessin the benefit of the doubt.

But let's assume for a moment the experts are right, and Detroit embraced widespread school choice programs that did indeed account for massive student migration from the city's public schools. The premonition of an "unprecedented budget deficit" seems mathematically implausible at best and outright disingenuous at worst.

We're not told who these experts are, of course, but wailing over prospective budget shortfalls is always a popular tactic among teachers' union officials, liberal politicians, and anti-choice activists whenever threats to tax revenues are perceived. For example, in a response to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "State of the State" address on Wednesday, January 26, Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, shrieked, "Vouchers drain money out of neighborhood public schools to pay for tuition at religious and private schools. If Gov. Perry really supports neighborhood schools, he can't support vouchers."

This is utter nonsense, if due to nothing more than the fact that the fight for school choice arose specifically to improve the quality of "neighborhood schools" the naysayers claim to care so much about. Indeed, even if a state offered a $3,000 voucher toward a private or parochial school, this is still about one-third the amount states spend on average each year per pupil in public schools. Is it really too much to expect these educators to do the math? If fewer students occupy seats in public schools, and take the costs of providing that education with them, school systems would actually save money, not least of all because it would be highly unlikely that states would yank funding in proportion to what would now be saved on students who are no longer in the public school system.

Hysterical pronouncements of budget cuts and tenuous assertions of school flight aside, Zessin's arguments cannot even withstand the scrutiny of basic economics. Specifically, he justifies condemning inner city students to a childhood of inadequate education simply to avoid realizing what he pejoratively terms the "Wal-Mart effect." Mr. Zessin contends:

Imagine you've shopped at the same grocery store your entire life -- it's quaint, familiar and pleasant but it's not perfect. The prices are high and the selection is nothing to brag about. One day it hits you that you could do better and you deserve to shop at a grocery store that sells $3 microwaves and $1 jumbo bags of Cheetos. Sooner or later, you tell your friends how great it is that your grocery bill is $5 less than before and they follow your lead.

Capitalism at its best, right? Who cares about that wimpy little grocery store -- they'll figure something out.

In education, vouchers and school of choice programs are masks for this same principle.

One struggles to follow Zessin's so-called "logic"; he admits public schools are expensive and imperfect, yet implies that getting a better education for less money is somehow a bad thing. But liberals love to invoke the specter of "Wal-mart" whenever attempting to support the validity of their doom-and-gloom, the-sky-is-falling assertions. However, as long as he's comparing school choice programs to the "Wal-martization" of America, it's worthwhile to point out that wherever you find a Wal-mart, you usually find that quality of life in the community has improved significantly, quite literally overnight, as consumers have been given wider access to products at more affordable prices.

That Zessin compares "wimpy little grocery stores" with failing public schools that could be run out of business should students be given access to better schools indicates precisely how important "the children" truly are to liberals. After all, we're talking about kids here, not "jumbo bags of Cheetos!"

As if this rationalization isn't depressing enough, Zessin continues:

The strongest reason for opposing choice programs is that they will lead to divestment and flight from decaying cities badly in need of infrastructure development. Currently, Detroit's wealthier suburban public schools are the model for success due in large part to its oversized tax base. Year in and year out they fare significantly better than their city counterparts on standardized tests and other measures of performance.

If these programs are implemented on a wide scale, city dwellers will predictably abandon their neighborhood schools in search of a suburban utopia. There will be no incentive for parents and city leaders to invest and strengthen existing schools in the city. In the short run, it's much easier to run away from the problem than to face it head on.

This is some profoundly ignorant logic. It appears to be lost on Mr. Zessin that at present there indeed is no "incentive for parents and city leaders to invest and strengthen existing schools" precisely because parents have no choice but to send their kids to ineffective public schools set in "decaying cities badly in need of infrastructure development."

Zessin himself admits that "Detroit's wealthier suburban public schools are the model for success," yet he would deny poor urban youngsters the same opportunities that wealthier families already have as a result of financial stability allowing them the option of removing their children from underperforming schools.

In reality, it is Mr. Zessin who is choosing to run away from the educational problems we face as he, incredibly, fails to understand that his arguments purporting to denounce free market remedies are actually those that best support them.

If we ever hope to improve educational quality and provide educational equality, we must utilize capitalistic measures to crumble the socialist infrastructure of the education establishment. Only the fear of losing business and jobs to superior competition will provide incentive for schools to improve.

Woe betide the children of America if we continue to allow liberals to use the benefits of the free market as a perverse rationale for refusing to employ them.

Trevor Bothwell is a freelance writer living in Maryland and a former public school teacher. He maintains a web log at www.therightreport.com. He is currently co-authoring the book "Communism for Kids: How Liberals Attempt to Indoctrinate Our Children" with colleague Lisa De Pasquale. Trevor can be contacted at bothwelltj@yahoo.com. ©2005 Trevor Bothwell


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