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Jun 7, 2019

School Choice from Rand to Ron

A Review of "Education in the Marketplace: An Intellectual History of Pro-Market Libertarian Visions for Education in Twentieth Century America" by Kevin Currie-Knight

Currie-Knight’s study of libertarian views on education shows that there has never been ‘a’ libertarian approach to school choice.

School Choice from Rand to Ron

Many of libertarianism’s recurrent divisions also show up among proponents of school choice theory. In his book, Education in the Marketplace: An Intellectual History of Pro-Market Libertarian Visions for Education in Twentieth Century America, Kevin Currie-Knight shows the full spectrum of consequentialist vs. deontological reasons for supporting greater freedom in educational arrangements. Some libertarian deontologists believe that it’s the natural right of parents to make unencumbered education choices for their own children; the government violates that right with compulsory school attendance laws, full stop. By contrast, consequentialist-inclined libertarians think that the wrongness of publicly managed or funded schools stems primarily from their ineffectiveness and inefficiencies.

Beyond the recurring utilitarianism vs. deontology debate there are many other distinctions at play in school choice theory and Currie-Knight does a great job of spotlighting them. At an abstract level, is the purpose of school choice to allow schools to diversify in terms of their cultures and aims or do we hope that schools will more straightforwardly compete head-to-head on fundamental goals like literacy and numeracy? Who’s the most important beneficiary of educational services anyways: child, parent, State, or society? Is there any objective criteria for an education’s “goodness” apart from the fact that consumers choose it?

And even if the abstract concerns were to be resolved, questions still abound at the nuts and bolts level of school choice implementation. Under a robust choice plan, will schools mostly be public or private? Must they be non-profit, or is profit (even corporatization) of private schools acceptable?

As an intellectual history, Education In The Marketplace doesn’t attempt to settle these issues. Rather, Currie-Knight weaves together these themes in an exploration of market-oriented school choice thought as it has evolved over time across a diverse group of thinkers.

To name a few, social critic Albert Jay Nock thought that government schools intruded on liberty in principle and in substance, yet he worried that individuals might not make sound educational choices themselves. Journalist Frank Chodorov, under the influence of the Austrian school of economics, had no such worries about the quality of subjective educational preferences. He dreamed of a school on every corner to cater to the diversity of consumers’ demands.

Ayn Rand, the creator of a rationalist philosophy known as “Objectivism” and the writer of best-selling books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, was no fan of public education. She insisted that government-run schooling jeopardizes the foundation of a free society by teaching children that they are helpless members of a collective rather than free individuals with the crucial power of reason. Although not one to compromise with what she perceived as evil, Rand allowed that the government should offer tax credits for private spending on education as a way to mitigate the overall harms of public schooling while using taxation to support it.

Anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard’s total commitment to liberty — albeit only negative liberties — led him not only to an infamous position on dependent minors but to the conclusion that government has no place in education at all. On the other hand, free-market economist Milton and Rose Friedman approached school choice in a more pragmatic way as a tool for achieving better outcomes. The Friedmans argued (including in their famous PBS series Free to Choose) for a voucher-based system in which the government still funded much education but withdrew from running so many of its own schools.

Instead of arriving at the school choice debate from an academic or economic background, Myron Liberman learned the hard way that schools (and teachers) are massively resistant to change. Working as a teachers’ union negotiator illuminated for him that schools would never become properly effective until their resources were strictly limited via the profit motive. In the absence of head-to-head competition from other schools over student-consumers, school systems inevitably bloated, stagnated, and soaked up public resources wastefully.

In addition to these discussions of thinkers familiar to most libertarians, Currie-Knight offers a fascinating bonus in chapter 8, several examples of school choice advocates coming from the political Left instead of from the Right. John “Jack” Coons and Stephen Sugarman, for instance, were primarily concerned with rectifying funding inequities between school districts and even between individual families rather than with smashing the State per se. Their wonkish, algorithmic plan to secure educational funding equity via “family choice” actually gained some traction in California in the 1980s.

Educational theorist John Holt is probably better known to most libertarians than Coons or Sugarman; he popularized ideas about the pernicious compulsory nature of institutionalized schooling as inflicted upon us by the government. However, as Currie-Knight makes clear, it would be a mistake to understand John Holt as a full-blown political libertarian; Holt limited his observations to the field of education while remaining ambivalent about government’s proper role more generally.

The concluding chapter of Education In The Marketplace takes readers right up to the present. Currie-Knight carefully juxtaposes Ron Paul’s thought on educational choice with that of Diane Ravitch, a long-time American education commentator and former Assistant Secretary of Education who ultimately switched sides in this debate (from pro-educational-choice into one of its fiercest, loudest opponents). This high-profile duo both released books about education on the same day in 2013, though their positions diverged starkly.

Paul displays the kind of mixed deontological and consequentialist reasoning that you’d expect from an actual politician trying to appeal to real-world voters. Paul believes that parents do have the right to choose the educations their children receive and that government funding of education inevitably taints the content of that education. Conveniently, he also believes that robust private markets in education promote the best possible educational outcomes for children too.

Ravitch’s previous support for school choice was contingent upon the idea that a voucher-based system could introduce the competition necessary for more schools to fulfill basic standards of quality. A bleak assessment of the now-available evidence on the effectiveness of charter schools caused Ravitch to change her mind. She finds strong reason to believe that schools of choice, including many trendy online programs, have apparently stronger incentives to aggressively enroll students than to actually deliver quality services.

It’s tempting for libertarians to jump to charter schools’ defense, claiming that existing school choice programs have been too small or short-lived to reveal the real potential effects of competition on education. This is possibly true! But it’s also a big ask for a minority group like libertarians to ask the culturally-dominant, public school-approving majority to take a leap of faith on massive education reforms (one that pilot school choice programs don’t even necessarily support).

Education In The Marketplace could have benefitted from more explicit discussion of the moral dimensions of education. After subsuming the previously diverse and probably adequate landscape of small private schools, public schools moved past providing basic reading, writing, and arithmetic instruction into an explicit, ambitious agenda of offering “character education” that went far beyond the inevitable “hidden curriculum” of any schooling system. Like every other area of education, character education is rife with controversy, conflicts, and fads.

When Ayn Rand complains that public schools jeopardize individualism in students, she wasn’t just worried about the decay of her preferred political system — she’s worried literally about good vs. evil within individual minds. Homeschoolers, the ultimate defectors from government-monopolized education, are often motivated by perceived obligations to protect their children’s moral development from teachers with different agendas (even when those teachers work in schools with good standardized test scores). My own hometown was once embroiled in scandal (and subsequent lawsuit) when Christian creationists managed to get evolution disclaimer stickers placed in ordinary biology textbooks containing accounts of the origins of human life.

In other words, specifically moral and character-based concerns clearly underpin many ordinary people’s beliefs about how children should be educated. Taking these concerns seriously isn’t quite the same as understanding political rights or utilitarian consequences. Whether markets end up promoting good moral character, directly or indirectly, is very much a live question. Still, Education In The Marketplace offers a readable, satisfying account of the diversity in market-based education positions. It would be a great starting point for anyone, libertarian or not, to learn how libertarians think about markets for educational services.