Free Markets and Education: The Answer is Freedom

The United States’ K-12 system of education must evolve to keep pace with the changing global economy. America has consistently taken a leading role in the world in a broad range of industries because we have avoided each century’s intellectual political fads (e.g. mercantilism, communism, & socialism) that dilute the positive impact of competition and economic freedom.

While there have been ebbs and flows with respect to the dedication of individual politicians to the beneficial effects of capitalism and competition, our economic system has remained admirably anchored to the essential proposition that free people are free to trade and exchange goods and services as a basic human right. This consistent dedication to all forms of human freedom has created a diverse array of competitive industries, from mechanized farming and efficient manufacturing to cutting-edge services and world-leading technologies that can stand toe to toe with the best that that any other country has to offer.

Our system of public education, in contrast, remains one of the last American industries to be shielded almost entirely from the pressures of competition. This has been true for many years and for many reasons. Chief among these barriers to competition are teachers’ unions, which have successfully prevented nearly all changes that could put more power in the hands of parents and students in search of a better education and a brighter future. The entrenched education bureaucracy has fought for decades to preserve systems that are not only failing but have been failing children for as long as anyone in their communities can remember.

Yet instead of being willing to accept the fact that the same competition that has improved every industry to which it has been applied is desperately needed in our schools, the education establishment instead comes back to the same answer that got us here and keeps us here: more. More money, more power, more union dues, more political influence, more of everything to benefit the adults in the building at the expense of the children. We need more all right, but not more of that.

What public education truly needs is more accountability for teacher and schools to ensure that every American child is granted the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential. We need more competition from charter schools and vouchers that give parents a voice through choice. We need more transparent measures of school quality to empower parents to make the best choices for their children. And most of all, we need more honesty. We need to be honest enough to admit that we should be no more willing to accept failure among teachers than we do among engineers, doctors, pilots, or any other profession that holds the futures, and sometimes the very lives, of millions of Americans in their hands.

We also need to be honest about the static and decayed systems by which we educate our children, as if the schoolhouse model developed in the 19th century is the best and only way to teach a diverse group of children eager to learn. By shielding our education system from market forces, we also deprive it of the innovations and technological revolutions that have reshaped our economy over the last fifty years. Technology has transformed large swaths of the American economy in ways that were unfathomable until very recently, but this hasn’t had more than a marginal impact on the day to day experiences of the majority of our students.

Finally, we need to be honest about the false tradeoff between equity and freedom of choice in public education. In reality, there is no tradeoff. Helping students stuck in the worst American schools to achieve a better education, even if that involves placing them in a different school, improves both the freedom of choice granted to parents and students and increases the equity of the public education system as a whole.

For America’s education system, the most important thing for every politician to recognize is that their job is not to search in vain for a legislative “answer” to fix public education, but to instead rely on the power of free market competition that has radically improved every industry to which it’s been applied. That is the answer to fix America’s broken education system, and fortunately for us, it’s what we do best. The answer is freedom.

Damon Dunn writes the regular “Free Markets 101” column for “Right by the Bay”.  He is a successful real estate developer, investor and businessman, former collegiate and pro football player, and was a Hoover Institution fellow from 2011-13.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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