Failure of the Free Market for Philly Schools? Hardly.

In a June 29th article in the Washington Post, Keith Richburg reports:
Six years ago, the Philadelphia School District embarked on what was considered the country's boldest education privatization experiment, putting 38 schools under private management to see if the free market could educate children more efficiently than the government....

[The plan] was vehemently opposed by many in the community who feared that their schools were being used essentially to test an unproven theory: that using market principles, the private sector could manage schools and make more progress at lower expense than the government.
This sounds pretty good and readers of this blog would agree that it's clear that a fully free market in education would do a better job all around. Of course the reason this is now a story is because the effort has apparently been a major failure:
This month, the experiment suffered a severe setback, as the state commission overseeing Philadelphia's schools voted to take back control of six of the privatized schools, while warning 20 others that they had a year to show progress or they, too, would revert to district control.

"They had an unprecedented opportunity to turn things around in Philadelphia . . . and they failed miserably overall," added ... a former public school teacher. "If you're really trying to turn around public schools in your city and do it right, you should not even spend a minute looking at privatization."
Wow. That sounds pretty cut and dried. They tried the free market and it failed. But did it? Did the government essentially sell off the schools to fully private interests and relinquish all control, allowing market forces to govern curriculum, tuition, budget, hiring and firing of teachers and administrative staff?

The answer is an unequivocal no. There was absolutely nothing like the free market at work here. The government awarded contracts to private entities like Edison Schools to take over the day-to-day management of certain schools. Edison was apparently able to set budgets, but the money came from the government coffers. The students were still "public school" students, paying no tuition. I haven't been able to find any reports on this aspect, but I'm assuming that the unionized teacher contracts were not touched. The curriculum was still government-approved.

Does any of this sound like the free market? Is turning over a government bureaucracy to be run by contractors in any way an example of capitalism, of free competition? No, of course it isn't. It's a straw man that's as doomed to failure as the government-run schools themselves, but with the convenient scapegoat of a "greedy corporation" to attack when things go bad.

Still, what's nearly as bad as this -- and is perhaps a glaring condemnation of the public school system itself -- is that none of the reporting in the mainstream media questions the use of the words "privatization" or "free market" in this context. How anyone could look at the situation, and the group of bureaucratic temps playing with taxpayer Monopoly money, as an example of the failure of the free market in education is simply unfathomable. And yet, so profound is the absence in popular culture of reason or any real understanding of property rights and economics, that well-respected newspapers can print this garbage, and the public willingly eats it up without question.

In regards to the attempt at privatization of some public schools in the first place, one of the main reasons it was a half-assed failure is because it was done out of sheer pragmatism. No discussion of the principles of individual rights or property rights was had, and no fundamental questions were raised about the immorality of forced redistribution of wealth to fund education. No one asked "What is the proper role of government, if any, in education?" The level of thought that was given can be summed up thusly: "This capitalism thing seems to work sometimes, so maybe we should try it here." And because all involved had such a pitiful understanding of what true laissez-faire capitalism is, they thought that awarding a taxpayer-funded government contract to a group of parasitic pseudo-bureaucrats was capitalism.

No wonder the entire adventure has been a failure.

No comments: