Deregulating Education

by Robert Pondiscio
December 21st, 2011

“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.


  1. The reason that for-profit model and education are so freighted is that education has been captured for many years by companies that create a substandard,lowest common denominator product that most teacher have to make due with. This is as much as anything a product of the economics where Texas, California and few other states and their wacky politics can influence the texts for everyone. So regulatory capture just takes place in a few places and education can be compromised. Add the culture wars and yes it is hard for most of us to trust that the long term derivative affect of corporate intervention in education will produce anything like the space program.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 21, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

  2. Robert, you’re right that TV and other media are de facto schools that shape the minds of kids and adults alike –even more powerfully than “school”. Fox News exploits this. Whenever I saw Glenn Beck with his chalkboard I thought, he’s filling the education vacuum our stumbling and inefficient schools have opened up. And I frequently think that Obama needs to expressly don the mantle of teacher, because many of his viewers want and desperately need to learn more about economics and other important adult matters our schools have failed to teach. But like many from elite prep school backgrounds, Obama takes for granted that most adults have mastered the basics of civics and economics in school, so further teaching is unnecessary.

    This de facto school, broadcasting, is, as you say, deregulated. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I find it hard to believe that the average American is getting an edifying education from this broadcasting marketplace. Should the state ever relinquish control of k-12 school standards, wouldn’t we have a lot of kids learning the educational equivalent of Desperate Housewives?

    Now that I think about it, haven’t we already had decades of a sort of curricular laissez-faire in schools where methodology is king? And hasn’t the result often been the educational equivalent of Desperate Housewives?

    Comment by Ponderosa — December 22, 2011 @ 12:33 am

  3. I think that in this era of “have-it-your-way” when it comes to things as trivial as hamburgers and coffee, it is outrageous that low-to-moderate income parents are still being given almost no choice about something as vital as their children’s education. Pretty much the only parents who are actually able to choose the type of school they want their child to attend are those wealthy enough to afford tens of thousands of dollars per year for private schools.

    There is one charter elementary school in my area (a Montessori school) but it gets more than 3 applicants for every available slot. The local private Classical model school has a long waiting list as well. Clearly there is parental demand to support another Montessori school and a public Classical school but are those options being made available? No, because the “powers that be” in the district don’t see fit to offer those programs :-(

    Comment by Crimson Wife — December 22, 2011 @ 2:01 am

  4. As a school board member I get glossy ads for “curricula” and invitations to Open Bar socials hosted by education law firms, and am asked to approved $1000/day contracts with consultants… As Robert notes, lots of people are profiting handsomely off education — and they’re not the people I see providing most of the value added.

    Comment by Rachel — December 22, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  5. Crimson Wife,

    Yours is an all too familiar tale, a tale of countless of thousands of inner city parents and their children. They’ve been sentenced to their traditional neighborhood school with its negative outcomes and their only chance out, a public lottery in hopes of gaining entrance to a charter school, is almost as difficult to win as their state lottery (for cash).

    While there surely is a demand for more choice in these districts, state and local officials continue to find one excuse after another to squash their competition to the local public school(s). They’re clandestinely (or not so) pressured to limit the choice of these families/children for fear it could “potentially jeopardize public education in America.” Nonsense. Public education has done it to itself with its anemic and/or inferior product which has monopolized the market for centuries now.

    Granted, educating children from poverty is a challenge and one that has not been accomplished through conventional strategies. It’s beyond time for alternatives models to be developed, refined, and given a chance. Whether these alternatives present themselves via charters, virtual schools, private schools, even home schooling, alternatives have become imperative. Too many generations of children have already been lost to the traditional model.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 22, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  6. But…educators are letting others profit off of them…why? Consultants, test makers, text book publishers, etc..Why have educators caved? Where is your/their voice? Why are you silent? I am beginning to think it is because most educators have been in school for so long (since kindergarten) they are pleased with mediocre because it worked for them…NFPs are just as profit driven as FPs…have you ever looked at their funded depreciation accounts? Looked at the cash on the balance sheet? Do not worry which is which…worry which one is working for the child…right now none are…government educators have sold out…where is your voice? Is it truly muted?

    My money is on choice, educating parents on choice, educating parents on what kids really need to be mastering, fleeing government schools until they get with the program…

    Fortunately, I could and did…wish more could…the kids whose families don’t know, cannot supplement or cannot leave are the ones they get the short end of the stick…

    The circle continues…it needs to be broken…

    Yes, time to deregulate education…Time to let the money follow the kids…

    Comment by tim-10-ber — December 22, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

  7. @tim-10-ber I’m personally sympathetic to the idea that money should follow the kids. The best argument for it, in my opinion, is Catholic schools. There are many, many terrific inner city schools that have produced results for years that the best chaters would kill for, yet we stand idly by as they close. I know, I know….separation of church and state. Oh, wait…

    Pell grants?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 22, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

  8. [...] Pondiscio speculates about deregulating education in response to John Bailey’s call for the federal government to work with the private sector [...]

    Pingback by Deregulating education — Joanne Jacobs — December 23, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

  9. But without a doubt, deregulation has allowed public property to be used to build private fortunes. [emphasis added]”

    Sorry, but doesn’t this beg the question that is very much present in most any deregulation scenario? At the same time we’re looking at the questions you so aptly post, we should also be ditching the bandwidth-as-public-property analogy and replacing it with something that better models our actual current situation/

    Ponderosa, I completely agree that we would do well with a lot more public education in the realm of economics. However, Obama is just about the last public figure that I’d want to have try to teach it.

    Comment by Kirk Parker — December 24, 2011 @ 3:21 am

  10. Deregulating education is incompatible with democracy and the rule of law. It would me no protection for parents and children against educational fraud, for one thing. It would be more honest to lobby for increased regulation along with government recognition and financial support for religious (including Catholic) schools that meet state criteria–non-discrimination, provision of services to the handicapped, comprehensive schooling (no admissions tests), and provision of art, music, and physical education, etc., as well as meeting academic standards as is done in Northern Europe, including Germany and Finland, as I understand.

    Comment by Harold — January 2, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

  11. I’ll play devil’s advocate, Harold. Why is deregulating education any more incompatible with democracy than deregulating any other service that is traditionally performed by the government–police, fire, postal service, prisons, broadcasting or many others? And how is supporting Catholic schools any different than deregulation? I’m not arguing for deregulation or privatization, however it is equally hard to argue that the country has been well served by strict government control of education. Let’s say, for example, I want my child to attend a school that teaches the Core Knowledge currriculum. There are similar numbers of traditional schools and charter schools teaching Core Knowledge, but the percentage of charters teaching CK is higher since there are far fewer. Thus is it not likely that (if you use charters as a proxy for deregulation) that we would likely see an increase in the number of schools teaching a comprehensive curriculum?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 2, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

  12. Deregulating post office, fire department, police, and sewage system would be a disaster Mr. Pondiscio. I can’t believe you would advocate that. Those things are regulated for a very good reasons. I have nothing against government support of Catholic or other Parochial schools, but not in the absence of regulation.

    Comment by Harold — January 4, 2012 @ 1:33 am


    The rhetoric of the public choice school is a kind of hard-nosed realism. The theory dismisses as naive civic ideals such as public service; it denies the capacity of voters or politicians to act on the basis of a national interest wider than their own private aggrandizement. Rather like Marxism, public choice theory claims to face up to the self-interested basis of democratic politics and therefore treats all claims of higher purpose as smoke and deception. And also like Marxism, the theory presents itself as a scientific advance over earlier romantic and idealized views of the state. But rather than being an advance of science over intuition, the appeal of the public choice school is precisely to those who are intuitively certain that whatever government does, the private sector can do better. Together, the property rights and public choice schools show only that, if you start by assuming a purely individualistic model of human behavior and treat politics as if it were a pale imitation of the market, democracy will, indeed, make no sense.

    Comment by Harold — January 4, 2012 @ 6:59 am

  14. I advocate nothing. But it seems we have already done so Harold. We have Fed Ex, private security companies, firms that specialize in fighting fires on oil rigs? We have private companies that collect trash, build sewage plants and run our prisons. What are these companies doing if not providing public services as private entities?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 4, 2012 @ 7:00 am

  15. @Harold That’s a terrific, compelling quote. Thanks for posting it. I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that a strong democracy rests on a foundation of a well educated populace. The theoretical underpinnings are not what troubles me. My misgivings are based purely on efficacy. It is all well and good to say, as some have, the key to improving public education is banning private education. It’s a nice rallying cry, but it is a Constitutional nonstarter. Then too, there’s the fundamentally coercive nature of public education. You have to send your kid to school, and for the vast majority of our fellow citizens there is no choice or wiggle room whatsoever: I am compelled to send my kid to endure 13 years of a second-rate product, and have neither the means or the ability to choose a better alternative.

    I can genuinely argue this round or flat. I see the need for a strong public school system, but I also value individual liberty and cannot support conscripting children and families into supporting a system that they, for whatever reason, do not support or that does not serve them well. Children are not state property. What I strongly believe is that in the end, the unit of action in education — whether public, private or something else — ought to be the individual child. A good education system is one that enable the maximum number of children to reach their fullest potential. It does us no good whatsoever to bring every child to a low-level of mediocrity.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 4, 2012 @ 9:27 am

  16. Contra Robert Pondiscio, education is already radically de-regulated.

    Pick up a book at a library, read a magazine, talk to someone that’s a specialist, or browse the internet. Get educated.

    Pondiscio is confusing getting an education with getting a credential. They are not the same, although they may overlap. The problem is with our system of distributing credentials, not with the availability of learning opportunities.

    Comment by Glen S. McGhee FHEAP — January 4, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  17. It seems to me that NCLB was bad regulation because (among other reasons) its only foray into regulating the curricular chaos was to demand higher math and reading scores. This regulation has succeeded at raising math scores (though not reading, for reasons we understand). Imagine an improved NCLB that demands high history, science, second language, etc. scores. This would inevitably trigger the adoption of Core Knowledge/ AP type curricula and raise achievement across the board. It seems to me that this is what we should be fighting for, not for the further fragmentation of our educational system, and by extension, our national culture.

    I also think the public needs to reclaim a robust space on the various media formats (TV, Internet, radio, etc.) Too many Americans are not imbibing the knowledge they need to make prudent and ethical judgments –as citizens and private individuals –about this complex and imperiled world we live in. Some non-commercial, public interest entity (perhaps akin to the BBC) needs to serve up Essential Adult Knowledge fare and put it on the media spectra in ways that it’s very hard to avoid (PBS and CSPAN are needles in the haystack; they also have low production value that makes them uncompetitive with slicker programming). I’m sick of living in a society where people know everything about what’s going on with the Desperate Housewives of Beverly Hills, but nothing about the meth epidemic that is sweeping this country or Keynes or the billion plus fellow humans who are currently malnourished or how lobbyists wine and dine our legislators or how we really may be destroying the planet. James Madison wrote, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” The diffusion part isn’t happening. The market has proven that we cannot entrust this essential function to it. Are we going to let our religious faith in markets prevent us from doing what it takes to survive as a democracy –and as a species?

    Comment by Ponderosa — January 4, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

  18. Great post, Ponderosa. Well said.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 4, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  19. I disagree with the idea that it is all about de-regulation. It seems that the folks who push for privatization are also the same folks who push for regulation. I know, it is a contradiction but a curious one at that. In order for a free market to operate in education we need some kind of metric by which to judge the winners from losers. We cannot use profits like typical markets because then babysitting could pass for schooling. So is born the accountability movement. Neo-liberals (those who want more private involvement in education) love the standards and accountability movement because they provide a handy framework where valuable market data can be extracted.

    Lately though there has been an interesting trend that may actually validate Pondiscio’s thesis. Scott Walker in Wisconsin tried to get voucher students exempted from being forced to take the Wisconsin standardized tests. Curious, no? Why wouldn’t this hardcore neo-liberal want his voucher students held accountable? Why de-regulate voucher schools? My huch is that we are seeing a masive bait-and-switch going on. The standards and accountability movement (i.e. massive regulation of schooling) was a pretext for building the case that our schools are in a crisis and the only solution is to dissemble the public school system. Now, these same heralds of regulation are starting to turn their backs on regulation, but at the same time push for choice, privatization, and competition. Unfortunately the Democrats fell for this bait-and-switch big time and now they are seen as the promoters of regulation of schools. This is ironic since pedagogic progressives have always been against regulation of this sort. By the way, what ever happened to the pedgagogical progressives? Could they be latching on to the privatization movement? Is that their only life raft left in our over-regulated school system? I see an unholy alliance taking shape. Unfortunately, it is an alliance born out of despair.

    Comment by Kronosaurus — January 4, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

  20. The fallacy of Social-Darwinist neo-liberalism, that only what can be measured in terms of monetary profit is real or worthwhile is analogous in my mind to the crude behaviorist fallacies of that denied that people had an interior life in the early 20th century as well as to vulgar Marxism, as mentioned above. It is important to combat these notions.

    Comment by Harold — January 5, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

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