Monday, February 11, 2019

The Problem with "Monopoly."

A standard piece of charter/choice rhetoric is to refer to the public school monopoly, the suggestion being that school choice is needed in order to break the public school stranglehold.

I'd argue that the term is not accurate, that it suggests a single nationwide education entity that imply doesn't exist. Can an enterprise be a monopoly if it's actually several thousand individual entities?

But that's not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to talk about what the use of he word "monopoly" reveals about the choice cheerleaders ho use it.

Let's think about this for a second.

What is a monopoly, anyway? It's a way to capture all of the market for a particular business. If I have a monopoly on widgets, that means everyone who wants to buy a widget will be giving their money to me. If you want to start a widget business, your problem is that I have captured all the customers and therefor all the money.

For many choice fans, the complaint is that the public school system had boxed out all competitors. "We would like to make money in the education business," they opine. "But the public system has captured all the customers. We could collect some of those sweet, sweet tax dollars, but first we have to bust some of the market loose."

Now look at what this framing does to students and their families. They are now part of a market to be captured in order to generate some revenue, not people to be served by fulfilling the promise of a free education for every single student. We are back to free market thinking, which has not, does not and will not serve education or students well. Where providers fight for a slice of the market, they will fight for the best parts of the market. In the free market, all customers are not created equal, so that competition to deliver mail to customers fifty miles out past East Nowheresville, to build roads through less-traveled regions, to educate students who have costly special needs--that competition isn't going to happen.

The use of "monopoly" is a signal that someone sees education as just one more market to be "liberated," and while I like the free market just fine for many things, I'll argue at length that it does not fit the needs or aims of public education. (Here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters.) It signals that someone wants to have an argument about business, not education. But education is not business, and students and families are not a market.

Does public education have issues? You betcha. Are there some students who are not as well-served as they ought to be? Absolutely. But in the search for solutions, there's no reason to jump immediately to "how about a bunch of privately owned and operated schools with no transparency or local control." Even if a charter fan is not simply a privatizer looking for a way to score some tax dollars, framing education problems as business problems leads, unsurprisingly, to looking only for business solutions.

The use of "monopoly" is a signpost that tells you you're on the wrong road. It often, but not always, signals that you're dealing with someone who's more interested in privatizing education than actually solving education problems.

1 comment:

  1. I was just in a discussion about education and monopolies. The College Board using ESSA to push AP into every public school. Google using political clout to push Google Chromebooks into every school. Why are they never raised by education reformers concerned with monopolies in education?