Think Education Is a Public Good? Think Again.

Jan 13, 2020 12:00:00 AM


Education ought to be a public good. And it never has been.

Most Americans want education to be a public good, an inherent right guaranteed to all that exists outside the imperfections and inequalities of the free market.

I also want education to be a public good.

But I also believe in seeing things as they are, rather than as I wish them to be.

Education, from the very beginning, has been just another commodity, bought and sold on the market, with the highest quality paid for by those who can afford it.

While some decry charter schools as the primary agents of privatization that make schools into commodities to be bought and sold, the reality is that all schools are commodities.

[pullquote]The wealthy and privileged buy their way into accessing the schools they desire, while the working-poor and under-resourced access merely what is offered to them free of charge.[/pullquote]

Here’s What Makes Public Goods Truly Public

Let’s start by getting some definitions straight.

To be a public good, a service needs to be nonexcludable and nonrivalrous

To be nonexcludable means that it is impossible to exclude someone from using the good or service. Pizza, therefore, is not a public good because nobody has to share a slice they bought with their own money. However, national defense is a public good because it is nonexcludable; national defense protects everyone.  

To be nonrivalrous means that multiple people can access a particular good at the same time without reducing the amount left for others. National defense, therefore, is a public good because it is nonrivalrous; no matter how many people live in the United States, all of them are equally protected by national defense. By contrast, pizza is not a public good because it is rivalrous; if one person eats it, another cannot.

With these definitions in mind, it makes sense that quality education ought to be a public good. [pullquote]Quality education should be nonexcludable, so that nobody is excluded from partaking in the service, and it should also be nonrivalrous, so that my child’s access to education does not limit access for yours.[/pullquote] 

U.S. History Shows Education Has Never Truly Been a Public Good

But simply saying education is a public good does not make it so.

In fact, it never has been. 

From day one, American education, like the rest of American society, has been excludable. Think about voting rights and the right to own property; indeed, the right to be recognized as fully human. It wasn’t until 1918 that schooling was made compulsory for all children, and not until 1954 that access to schools could not be blocked by one’s race.

It would seem then, at the earliest, education in America became nonexcludable in the mid-1950s.  But even this isn’t true. This move toward becoming nonexcludable is, at best, incomplete.

It is generally understood that private and parochial schools are private goods and can exclude at will. Aside from prohibitive price tags, private and parochial schools can also choose to exclude students whom they feel they are ill-equipped to serve, that is any student with an IEP, 504, or other special educational need.

My family knows this firsthand, as our eldest son was denied access to all private schools to which we applied.

What’s less well-understood, though, is that public schools can also exclude students at will. One need only look at the acceptance rates of public magnet schools to see such exclusivity in public schools.

In Philadelphia, admission rates for one of the most coveted public magnet schools in the city is between 3 and 7%. For context, Harvard University has an acceptance rate of 5%. So much for public education being nonexcludable.

But even desirable non-selective admission schools are inherently rivalrous.

Consider the rivalrous nature of school funding formulas. Many school district budgets are determined by the taxable wealth of their residents. In a system where local wealth funds schools, usually through local property taxes, a rivalrous system is essentially guaranteed because every dollar that goes to one district obviously cannot go to another.  

In Pennsylvania, such structures allow for one district to spend upwards of $25,000 per student while a neighboring district spends $14,000. 

Educational Justice Demands Breaking the Link between School Quality and Home Prices 

The rivalrous nature of public education doesn’t exist only between districts, but within districts as well. 

Philadelphia provides a useful case study. In the supposed “City of Brotherly Love,” competition for seats in desired schools is fierce. Desirable schools are bursting at the seams, and many do not have enough seats for all families within their catchments.  This has led some parents to literally camp outside the school buildings to be first in line for admission.

Waiting in line for something to ensure access before spaces fill up epitomizes a rivalrous, commodified system of access.

[pullquote]The bottom line is this; education in this country is a commodity, not a true public good. It always has been.[/pullquote]

Once we admit this to ourselves, we can go about dismantling the commodification of what should be a public good.

This means a strong, equitably resourced school in every neighborhood, one whose funding isn’t based upon how much the local community can afford through taxes, but based upon what that community needs.

This means destroying the link between housing values and school quality, between zip codes and educational opportunity.

This means facing the fact that educational justice necessitates undoing the violence that is one neighboring district spending $24,000 per student and another $14,000.

A quality education has been a commodity for far too long.

The day will come, if those of us with privilege possess equal amounts of courage to see that justice means relinquishing that which we have unjustly been given, when education will truly be a public good.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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