Education is a public good, not a commodity

In the name of “liberty,” Republicans believe that government should have little or no role to play in the choices we make; instead, they say these should be shaped by the laws of the market. That might work when someone is buying a Cadillac, a dressage horse, or hiring landscapers for one of his houses. It doesn’t work in education. Education is not a product that is transmitted from private buyer to seller on the open market.

Yes, it is a form of “investment”—but it is a different form of investment from the commodities Mitt Romney is used to buying and selling. More than anything, education is a process that has a societal investment at its core. The teacher invests her time in her talents, and she then invests her time in her students, who then invest their time in their self-development and self-improvement. Parents and other family members invest their time in that process as well.

As a taxpayer, I invest in that entire process with my tax dollars for people I will never meet. The community reaps the rewards of those investments by having a well-educated, autonomous, productive citizenry—which is precisely what makes education a public good.

It is doubtful that Obama will articulate his views on education in this way. But at the core of his approach and those who support him, there is an unmistakable belief in education as a public good, and that the other side’s approach to education is fundamentally misguided for many of the reasons cited above. Some things are too important to be left to the market, and not all things should be run as a business. And just maybe, businessmen don’t make good presidents.

One could imagine a different scenario than the one that took place in 2008. Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination against John McCain and then defeats Barack Obama in the general election. In the depths of the Great Recession, what does President Romney do?

He cuts taxes on the wealthy further, lets nearly a half-million education jobs dry up, continues to allow private banks to swallow people in student debt, deregulates higher education so more for-profit boondoggles crop up, allows for more for-profit charter schools, cuts Pell Grant funding, dismantles the Department of Education and consolidates it into another federal agency or simply does away with it altogether, and moves away from any type of federal standards for our education system. And oh yes—he lets Detroit go bankrupt, costing another 2 million jobs.

Pick any of those you want as your reason to vote for Barack Obama this fall.

Christopher Malone, Ph.D., is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Pace University.

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