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09 May 2011 @ 05:23 pm
Supermarkets and Education  
While the current American education system is certainly not optimal, advocates of a wholly free market solution ignore fundamental difficulties inherent to such a system. In particular, Dr. Donald Boudreaux's recent article comparing supermarkets and public schools is unfortunately short-sighted and misses several of the crucial difficulties which beset education reform. To that end, consider:

If Education Were Like Groceries

What if education were distributed on the free market, and families below the federal poverty level received "education stamps" to pay for schooling?

Suppose that education were provided solely by private institutions which, aside from federal regulations concerning quality, were left to operate without government interference. To make the analogy to supermarkets even more complete, let us suppose that families near or beneath the federal poverty level were given a monthly allowance of "education stamps", usable at participating schools to help pay that family's education expenditures.

The first obvious difficulty is that a month's supply of "education" will general cost more to produce than a month's supply of food. In the modern era, the majority of food production can be automated or performed by unskilled workers, whereas, in order to be at all worthwhile, education must by necessity be provided by skilled, educated teachers. Fortunately, this problem can in principle be resolved by increasing the value of "education stamp" distribution in proportion to the cost difference between food and education.

The second difficulty is that, while education is necessary for a modern, functional democracy, it, unlike food, is not necessary to sustain life. Thus, while those on the bottom of the income spectrum must spend some of their limited resources on food or die, expenditures for education can, and will, be neglected in favor of food, housing, and healthcare expenditures. This problem could be avoided by mandating the purchase of education by all families, though such a solution would to an extent distort the free market advocated by Dr. Boudreaux and be subject to the same criticisms inherent to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Third, the modified free market for education discussed above would face similar difficulties to that of food supply, magnified by the necessity to employ highly skilled producers in order to produce a high quality product. Contrary to the implication of Dr. Boudreaux's article, supermarkets do not distribute food equally to the populace. One only needs to compare a supermarket in a low income neighborhood to one in an affluent suburb; the former will have a smaller selection, in particular of fresh produce and other higher quality foods, than the former. Furthermore, particularly impoverished neighborhoods may not have a supermarket at all, with many residents relying on convenience stores as their primary source of calories.

Once could certainly argue at this point that residents of low income areas could travel to the higher quality supermarkets in order to acquire food. However, due to the cost of transportation, the time value of money, and a variety of other factors, they typically do not, and the same factors that impact supermarket quality would impact school quality as well. Consequently, schools in higher income areas would overwhelmingly tend to be high quality, while residents of low income areas would find themselves receiving schooling from the educational equivalents of Seven Eleven.

While a strong argument can indeed be made that supermarkets should not be run like public schools, I believe it is quite clear that schools should not be run like supermarkets.
the beemaiabee8 on May 9th, 2011 10:57 pm (UTC)
Two words: Food Desert.

Idiots who think that everyone is as privileged as them make me want to hurl.
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alataristarionalataristarion on May 10th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC)
"To use crude anecdotal logic, the gap between U City Schnucks and Plaza Frontenac Schnucks is not nearly so pronounced as the gap between the public schools in those two cities."

I would contend that, given the differences in the difficulty of production of their disperate products (food vs education), the differences between those stores and those schools actually is quite comparable. The Schnucks in U City has all of the basics needed for one's diet, and even has everything needed for a complete, healthy diet if one is motivated to attain one. The same is true of U City schools; they are accredited, and motivated, intelligent students with good family support can graduate from U City schools with a good education. However, the Schnucks in Frontenac or Ladue has a much greater selection of higher quality foods, the culinary equivalent of AP classes, etc, which give shoppers there an advantage when seeking a varied, healthy diet.

The biggest difference in the provision of groceries, however, comes when one examines truly impoverished areas and not just places less well of than Frontenac. A quick search in google maps for "grocery stores" displays a large number of red dots across the metro area. However, a quick examination of the (relatively few) red dots in the City north of downtown primarily reveals institutions that neither you nor I would consider real grocery stores. I'd challenge you, for example, to start at Cass and Jefferson and see how far you have to go to assemble a healthy meal. Add this to the fact that those in this neighborhood are most likely to lack reliable transportation, and you have pretty much the same problem with grocery stores as you do with food.

In summary, my argument is essentially that even the modified free market approach used with groceries has the same problems as the status quo. In order to actually improve education, we need to find a more complex and creative solution to the problem.
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Beckybeckyzoole on May 20th, 2011 09:59 pm (UTC)
How I wish that people would understand that solutions that work very well for small societies often do not scale up well for large societies. In other words, the locally-controlled school system that educated Americans well for 1812 does not educate us well for 2012. A national school system would make so much more sense. Sadly, I doubt it would be ideologically possible to implement in this country.