In January, we will once again celebrate National School Choice Week.
The focus on the week will, rightfully so, be about those students who are currently stuck in educational environments that don’t fit their needs — and the importance of empowering their parents with the ability to choose a better alternative.
It’s a concept that the culture at large seems to be increasingly embracing. According to some surveys, as much as 70 percent of young American parents believe in the broad concept of school choice — whether it be Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), tax scholarships, charter schools or other programs.
At first, this sounds rather surprising, especially in Nevada where ESAs remain unfunded and the newly-elected legislature is expected to be hostile to the concept of broadening choice for parents and students. Put in a broader context, however, and it starts to make more sense.
Education, like a handful of other relics from the progressive era of American politics, is an outlier in a world that otherwise spoils consumers with choice. We live in a world today, where we literally have more “choice” at our fingertips than ever before — and that choice is leading to innovations and improvements to our lives at an unbelievable rate.
Even something as mundane and common as the modern automobile demonstrates the degree to which consumers now demand choice and variety in our daily lives. Once sold as a simple black machine with limited options, the automobile has turned into a form of personal expression more than a mode of transportation in some cases. From Honda Civics to Ford F150s to Tesla, there is an entire world of options and variety — all catering to the specific needs and desires of individual consumers.
It’s the democratization of the economy. Businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs must do one thing — and one thing well — if they hope to be successful: listen to and value the customer.
The results are products, somewhere out there, that are basically designed specifically for filling an individual consumer’s wants, desires and needs. From price, to comfort to design and even the number of cupholders, the sheer choice that exists in the marketplace ensures there’s something out there for everyone. The same can’t be said for education.
If automobiles were directed by some central planner, as is government run public schools, imagine how uninspired the market would look. The Ford F150, for example, is the world’s best-selling vehicle. A central planner might very well look at that data and decide that every vehicle built or sold should emulate the iconic Ford pickup. After all, limiting the production of vehicles to only the bestselling model should, in theory, mean everyone has access to the “best” vehicle on the roads.
Of course, the term “best” is subjective. And in a market driven by consumers, the term is defined by those making the purchase — not some planner sitting in an office directing the economy. Which is precisely why “fixing” public education in the top-down system of a government monopoly has never yielded an educational environment that caters to the unique needs of individual students.
Even if the education curriculum applied in a public-school district was “the best,” one size simply does not fit all. Children, after all, are not some mass product put together in an assembly line, they are unique individuals who learn and develop in unique ways. Like other relics from America’s progressive era, government’s monopoly over education has ensured a system-first mentality — leaving parents, students and even teachers powerless to find solutions designed specifically for their circumstances.
And, while some “solutions” to the woes of public education indeed help some students, those it leaves behind needs to be alternatives. Of course, defenders of the government-monopoly on education argue that education is too important to leave up to the same market forces that have given us unparalleled innovations in the rest of our lives. However, the importance of education is precisely why such market forces are necessary. As Nebraska’s Republican Sen. Ben Sasse once explained that “Children are not widgets — they’re souls.”
A central planner with a monopoly over the automobile industry would certainly be inconvenient and uninspiring for consumers. Getting an education-monopoly wrong, however, ruins lives.
Michael Schaus is communications director at Nevada Policy Research Institute