Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Lesson from Parks

My wife and I have just completed the trip from Pennsylvania to Seattle. We hammered our way across the country and made some hard sightseeing choices generally in favor of scenic splendor (badlands, but not Wall Drugs). Consequently, we've spent a lot of time in the car, and when not in the car looking at things like this

Spending time in national and state parks has reminded me of what a great idea state and national parks are-- and why.

Actually, what really reminded me was passing through the tourism-based communities just outside the boundaries of the parks.

Inside the park-- pristine beauty, a profound and spiritual silence, an awesome resource being shared and enjoyed by all citizens. Outside the park-- a bunch of market-based entrepreneurs jostling and fighting for a piece of the pie, garish sales pitches blocking the view, leaving citizens as customers, who must figure out for themselves what business offers a worthwhile product and which are just a money-grubbing scam. Inside the park-- a focus on preserving a resource for the common good. Outside the park-- a focus on doing whatever will help you make a buck.

Sound familiar?

The analogy to public education is not perfect, but even its imperfections fit. The park system is not without sin, going all the way back to the chunks of land (like the eastern half of Glacier Park) taken from native American nations. And in many parks there are profitable businesses that provide support for the park-- done under the supervision and guidance of the park service. Nor are all tourist trappy businesses outside the park money-grubbing scams.

But the contrast remains stunning. The park is about preserving a shared resource and keeping it available to everyone in the nation. Outside the park is about turning a profit, making a buck, and hawking goods like a hollering huckster. Inside the park is raw sprawling quiet truth. Outside the park is scam and spin and yammering sales pitches. Inside the park, nature and the citizens come first. Outside the park, nature is just a tool for extracting profit and citizens are just the folks from whom that profit just be extracted.

The free market is lousy at preserving and cherishing a public resource. It stinks at respecting the space and the citizenry. To turn the free market loose inside the park would not make the park better, unless by "better" you mean "better able to be milked for profit."

The same is true for education. Privatizing schools would not make education better; it would just make it more profitable. It would leave schools in the hands of people whose first concern is neither education nor students, but how to use education and students to make a buck.

As with parks, the system does not always do the right thing, and free marketteers do not always do the wrong thing. But the contrasting foundations of the two approaches guarantee that those exceptions will be rare.

Public education belongs inside the park, preserved and nurtured as a public resource, not sold off in pieces and parts to folks whose main priority is making a buck (and as I always say, there is nothing wrong about making a buck-- but if that's your first priority, then you're out of alignment with the main values of public education). Preserve our shared public resources.

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