“From space travel to health care to clean energy, the federal government has a successful track record of partnering with the private sector,” writes John Bailey at The Atlantic, so why not education? Bailey, the director of Whiteboard Advisors, points out the most federal agencies “in some way engage the private sector in addressing their priorities.”
“When it comes to education, however, Uncle Sam’s handshake with entrepreneurs clenches into a fist. Instead of involving the private sector, education policymakers have actually created policy and funding barriers that skew support to nonprofits and prevent for-profits from fully participating in programs aimed at improving teaching or learning. These barriers exist at nearly every level of government — local, state, and federal — further isolating education from potential innovations that could help children and discouraging entrepreneurship.”
It’s an interesting argument. Privatization and profiteering, however, are among the most loaded terms in education debate. Charter school operators, test-makers and technology companies are routinely charged with prioritizing profits over the best interests of children. Indeed, there is something viscerally distasteful about looking at children and seeing dollar signs, which alone quickly derails conversations and briskly muscles quality arguments to the sidelines.
Perhaps the more interesting frame is one that Bailey doesn’t make. The question is not whether to introduce the profit motive, but whether to deregulate education. Unthinkable? Like education, broadcasting was once considered so vital to the public interest that it was tightly controlled by the government. While Bailey notes a host of industries–from airlines to the Internet–that have benefited from private sector innovation, curiously broadcasting is not one of them.
Until 30 years ago, our radio and TV airwaves were universally viewed as public property; broadcasters had an obligation by law to operate “in the public interest.” If you are over 40, you probably remember a TV and radio landscape, pre-cable, featuring much more local news and public interest programming, especially at odd hours and Sunday mornings. Rules requiring certain amounts of public affairs content were wiped away under deregulation, along with rules limiting the number of TV and radio stations a company could own. The Fairness Doctrine, which demanded an equitable, fair and balanced presentation of controversial issues was scrapped in 1987.
Things are quite different today. Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio broadcaster, owns roughly one in five of all radio stations in America. That literally could not have happened 30 years ago. The large thrust of deregulation, for good or for ill, has been to spur enormous growth in the broadcasting industry. Technological advances–the Internet, satellite broadcasting, cable television–have also boosted the number of options available. But without a doubt, deregulation has allowed public property to be used to build private fortunes.
Whether we as a nation are better or worse for this is an open question. There are compelling arguments to be made for and against. Flowering choice has not always led to higher quality, as even a few minutes of prime-time TV viewing will attest. On the other hand, having spent the early years of my career in local radio, I’m hard-pressed to argue that local communities were universally well-served by mom and pop broadcasters. I can’t pretend not to think we were better served by more local news and public affairs programming. But having spent years producing that programming, neither can I pretend anyone was listening.
Let me anticipate that the comparison of broadcasting to education will be dismissed as trivial. I’m not sure I agree. I could even make a case that our consumption of media in its various forms does as much or more to shape our national character and discourse than the education system, since it takes up far more of our time and at a higher level of engagement over the course of a lifetime.
What if education was essentially deregulated, and its quality was assured not by the Department of Education, but the Federal Trade Commission? Would KIPP or Achievement First emerge as the Clear Channel of education, becoming the dominant provider? Someone else? Those who favor deregulation tend also to favor free markets and local control. Yet deregulation has also brought complaints that local, religious, women, and minority broadcasters have been either marginalized or forced out of business altogether.
Spoken or unspoken, deregulation is already the thrust of many proposed reforms. At a Manhattan Institute event in New York City last week, a panel discussion of Marcus Winters’ new book, Teachers Matter, broadly agreed that barriers to entering the teaching profession should be eliminated, since there is no correlation between certification and a teacher’s efficacy. What is that if not an argument for deregulation of the teaching profession, if not education itself?
To be clear, I’m not advocating deregulation. This is purely a thought exercise. Rick Hess, commenting on Bailey’s piece, wrote that he is “frequently frustrated by our inability to talk sensibly about the role of for-profits in schooling.” Very well, let’s talk about it. But let’s not mince words. What we’re really talking about is not about the role of for-profits in education . Lots of companies, from textbook publishers to computer makers already profit handsomely from education.
What we’re really talking about is deregulating it.