Markets in Education

Responding to Doug Belshaw, who wrote:
Lawton (1992:87-88) who not only lists the ‘items of general agreement’ mentioned in ‘Markets’ in education - a bad thing? but considers six possible policies regarding the relationship between the state and education:
  1. Completely free education market - no state intervention
  2. Free market constrained and regulated by the state
  3. Wholly private school system subsidized or paid for by the state
  4. System where both state and private schools are in competition (mixed-economy, quasi-market)
  5. State system and private system complement each other (mixed-economy, planned)
  6. State system only - all independent schools abolished
For the reasons given above, number 1 is out of the question at present. Number 6 would seem to be out of the question as well as you cannot introduce a market into education and then prevent parents choosing to pay for their child’s education.
“Number 6 would seem to be out of the question as well as you cannot introduce a market into education and then prevent parents choosing to pay for their child’s education.”

This is empirically false. If you examine, for example, the Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) school system, where parent can select the school their children attend, you will see an example of this.

The same thing works in health. It is commonly, but falsely, argued that in a public health care system, people no longer have any choice (of doctor, of specialist, of clinic, etc.) But again, this is false. Were I sick right now, I could pick one of two hospitals or five walk-in clinics. Or I could call my family doctor (and again, I can choose my family doctor).

It is funny how ‘private’ and ‘corporate’ proponents have appropriated the terms ‘free’ and ‘choice’ - so much so that their appropriation is built right into the logic of your own work. Look, even, at the list of choices. What is this: “Completely free education market - no state intervention.” You mean, don’t you, “Completely corporate education market - no state intervention.”

But why don’t you say it? And why (subsequently) do you rule out as completely implausible a completely public education system? Without even an argument?


After typing this, I then looked at another of his posts, on equality, and attempted to post the following. But his system keeps saying to me, "Sorry, you can only post a new comment once every 15 seconds. Slow down cowboy." I have had an awful time with comments today. Needless to say, 20 minutes later it was still saying this. Anyhow, I tried to post this:

Doug Belshaw's other post

I'm not going to do a detailed analysis of this - I'm way to sick and irritable today to do that.

But - I would like you to ponder comparing this discussion with the following observation.

When I am asked by government officials how best to improve educational outcomes, I respond, without fail, as follows: feed the children.

Canada has 500,000 children on welfare right now, out of a population of 33 million, and welfare rates are at less than half the poverty line.

In study after study, it has been shown that there is a strong positive correlation between nutrition and educational outcomes. Since welfare children are undernourished, feeding them will improve educational outcomes.

This approach, of course, is neither a type of merit-based or need-based equality, at least so far as education is concerned, because it is not an educational solution. Moreover, this type of solution is not based on a concept of equality per se at all, though (presumably) equality would be its outcome.

But what is most interesting, is this: they won't do it.

They spend more money on studies, on computer equipment, on classrooms, on consultants, and so on... but they won't feed the students.

Why not?

Because the argument isn't about types of equality at all. The whole line of argument opposed to equality per se is a smokescreen.

Now - maybe you could force 'feed the children' into one of the two categories - arguing that children 'need' food, or arguing that proper nutrition is needed to provide educational 'opportunity'.

That this solution applies equally well to either approach, and that it is still rejected, in my mind says everything. It says to me, no matter ho much you accomodated the critics, they would still be opposed.

Because - fundamentally - children are poor, are not fed, and are not educated, at leas in part, because some people (and often the people responsible for feeding and educating them) do not want to feed and educate them.

Note, these are just observations, and not really recast to fit precisely into your argumentative framework (for which I apologize). But I nonetheless think these thoughts may give you something to think about.

OK, now while I was writing and trying to post that second post, Dog Belshaw responded to my first post. I can't respond (I tried) because the system still thinks fewer than 15 seconds have passed (a note to software developers: do not insert time-sensitive values into formfields in Apache-mod code. sheesh.)

Doug writes:

I can see how your first point is valid if, in fact, the situation in Edmonton system means that private schools are banned.

It is not necessary for private schools in Edmonton to actually be banned in order for the Edmonton example to be an example of how there chan be choice in a public school system. Parents can in fact choose what sort o education their children will receive, all within the public school system.

Doug continues:

The second point about health, however, doesn’t seem to follow. My argument was that the state cannot very well (in practice, not in theory) prevent parents from choosing to pay for their child’s education if they claim to give them ‘choice’. The analogy with health, as far as I see it, is that my wife has a choice of which hospital to give birth in but if she wishes can opt to ‘go private’. Without this latter option to reject the choices offered by the state it is not really ‘choice’ at all.

This is a bad argument. It's like saying that because parents cannot opt to sell their children into slavery they are being denied choice.

There are different types of choice. But the choice to pay or not pay is not the choice that corporatized-market proponents mean when they advocate choice. They are not saying, "Our private schools will give you exactly the same education, but in addition, you get to pay for it." Nobody, absolutely nobody, is lobbying for this.

When they say 'choice' what they want is for different (and presumably, better) programs, educational styles and pedagogies, sports programs, etc. And many other choices, including some less savory, varguely racist and classist motivations that are generally left unsaid.

Most of the choices - different programs, educational styles and pedagogies, sports programs - can be accomodated in a public system, as is demonstrated in Edmonton or elsewhere. What the private system (and only the private system) will buy in addition are those less savory elements of choice.

All this, of course, is lost under the weight of academic argument and bald-faced equivocation about the meaning of the word 'choice'.

I'm not saying Doug supports any of this - in fact, I am generally sympathetic to what I am reading in his posts. But I am bothered by the phrasing, by the arguments, by the contortions that avoid the truth - contortions needed, apparently, to be seen as properly academic.

Doug continues,
Perhaps I’ve been a bit sloppy with my use of terminology in the above. The ‘Completely free education market - no state intervention’ is pretty much word for word what Lawton states. ‘Free’ in this sense means ‘free from external constraints’ - but yes, I see the point about being captured by the discourse!
‘Free’ in this sense means ‘free from external constraints’? No it doesn't. It is still constrained by geography, the laws of physics, economics, the possibility of thermonuclear warfare, floods, attacks by locusts, kids with slingshots, and more, so much more.

'Free' in this sense means 'not governed by law'. But nobody argues (honestly) for that, because it would be utterly rejected. Being completely ungoverned by law would make the 'All-White Ku Klux Klan Kollege' a going concern. And many more completely unacceptable educational practices (including the above-mention selling of children into slavery, which is in fact what was done when there was no law).

And - in fact - there is no meaning of the word 'free' that actually corresponds to its use in this context. Except, of course, the use of 'free' to mean 'no payment' - but that adjective, of course, applies to the public system, not the corporate system.

Doug continues,

Finally, I don’t rule out as ‘completely implausible a completely public education system’.

Doug wrote, "Number 6 would seem to be out of the question as well." And I see no other reading of this sentence except to rule out as ‘completely implausible a completely public education system’.

I'm picky that way.

My point, which I perhaps should have made more explicit, was that given the marketization of education and the language of ‘choice’ it is extremely unlikely (at least in the UK) that any political party could return to the pre-ERA88 days.

That's kind of like saying, given slavery, we can never abolish slavery. And about as convincing.


  1. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for this post in response to my series of posts. Apologies for the 'Slow down cowboy' problems - it's something that's even affecting my comments at the moment, although I'm working on fixing it.

    Regarding your response to my post, I think you've misconstrued which side of the fence I'm actually on. This is possibly due to the concluding post I made which was originally titled 'Markets' in education - a way forward by which I actually meant a way forward in terms of getting critics and advocates to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue without 'talking past' one another.

    One more point in my defence before I move onto the point to you raise: the 6 different systems are raised by Lawton, not by me and are phrased in his language...

    Taking the point you made at the end in which you compare the marketization of education with slavery (albeit implicitly) there's a difference between thinking something is implausible in practice and it being implausible theoretically. It is the former sense by which I'm ruling out number 6 which was, to remind ourselves, the state system only with all independent schools abolished. I don't think your point about selling your children into slavery vs. sending them to a private school really holds any water as limited choice is no choice at all. To use a non-emotive example: if you offer me tea or coffee when I'm allergic to caffeine I haven't much of a real choice, have I? Presumably if the state abolished independent schools they'd also have to ban educating one's child at home which I see as a complete infringement of liberties. I'm sure you'd disagree!

    Next, I defined what I meant by 'free' as being 'free from external constraints' for a marketized education system with no state intervention. You say that 'it is still constrained by geography, the laws of physics, economics...' - well yes, but if that's the case we're all constrained by these things and no-one and nothing is ever free. I'm sure you're not such a determinist that you'd disallow any kind of freedom? There's a difference between theoretical freedom and practical freedom. The type of theoretical freedom invoked here is that of removing as much state control from education as possible. Of course, we all know that in practice something or someone would probably take the place of a state and have a malign influence. But that's not what the theoretical model deals with - it's concerned with models, not practicalities. (And yes, I know you'll want to come back on that one and say 'what's the point in it then?' - the point of this section was just to show that quasi-markets were one of the only options currently available due to recent political and economic realities)

    Finally, I completely agree with you that notions of 'equality' in a marketized system are laughable. This, as I have attempted to argue in the essay itself (which I've emailed you), is because the arguments of those who advocate markets in education are predicated upon a merit-based conception of equality of opportunity. As I have concluded in the essay, this is not really equality at all.

    I hope that clears up my position. I'd hate anyone to think that I'm actually arguing for markets in education: I'm just trying to play devil's advocate in places and pass this module, after all! :-)


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