Education is a public good, not a commodity

Obama’s education policies haven’t always been popular among Democrats.

Education is the great equalizer, the bedrock of the American Dream. Despite the highest levels of income disparity since the Great Depression, at a time when the personal wealth of the middle class has fallen to early 1990s levels, the unshakeable belief in upward mobility nonetheless still lives in our DNA—and education is its engine.

This is why, during every economic downturn including the recent Great Recession, Americans flock to educational institutions—to get retrained, to finish that degree, to rekindle the desire to better themselves. This is why Thomas Jefferson, author of those self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence and one of our greatest presidents, wanted the University of Virginia to be his most precious gift to America.

It is for these reasons that the United States was the first country in the modern world to create compulsory, universal public education. Universal means just that—everyone.

In other words, education is what we political scientists call a “public good.” Like clean air or water, or personal and national security, education is so basic to the well-being of a democratic society that everyone must receive its benefits. But everyone must also share in its costs.

Even if I don’t have children, or if I don’t send the ones I do have to a public school, the belief is that some of my tax dollars should go to educating your children because ultimately their education will benefit me and society as a whole.

However, not all share or understand the concept of education as a “public good.” There are those who choose to see education as a “commodity” better left to the forces of the market, like laundry detergent or a chain of restaurants. In this view, families and their children are not citizens whose educational successes promotes civic virtue and democratic values; they are “customers” who shop around with buying power for the best product out of rational self-interest.

Education, then, is to be “consumed” according to individual tastes rather than provided for universally in accordance with our democratic ideals. What determines the success of an educational institution is competition for customers: If a school doesn’t attract customers, then like any enterprise it should go out of business.

This fall you will most likely not hear the differences on education between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney framed in these terms. Yet, in the broadest strokes, this is what is at stake in the presidential election of 2012—two very different visions of education, and two very different ways to solve the problems that the American system of education faces. One based on a principle of universality, the other based on market forces.

Ever the businessman, Mr. Romney falls squarely in the “education-as-commodity” camp. Earlier this year at a town hall in Ohio, he responded to a high school senior’s question about the troubling cost of college in typical form.

“Don’t just go to one that has the highest price,” Romney said. “Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

The message was rather straightforward and simple: Individuals should shop around in the market for the education they think they can afford, even if it means a mountain of debt. Government has little or no role to play because, for Romney, education is a commercial product, not a public good.

The quality of that education, accessibility to it, or the basic obligation we as a society have to provide individuals with those two things are utterly nonexistent except in the context of what the market will bear. You’re on your own to sink or swim, left to the forces of the market’s ethics.

For every ill in higher education, Romney sees a market solution. Private banks and other lenders should play more of a role in financing college, not less. Romney would “encourage market entry by new education models” (quoted from his white paper “A Chance for Every Child”) and reduce regulations on higher-education institutions.

This is why he has held up the for-profit college Full Sail University as a model for higher education—an institution that, like most for-profit colleges, has low completion rates and higher student debt ratios than traditional colleges. How any of this would improve access or the quality of higher education is not clear but really is beside the point: In Romney’s “education-as-commodity” worldview, there is one solution to every problem—let the Invisible Hand of the market work its magic.

Romney’s views on K-12 education also largely stem from this education-as-commodity philosophy. His proposals for improving the nation’s schools are a hodgepodge of recycled ideas that have been floating around in right-wing think tanks for the last four decades. He wants more taxpayer-funded vouchers for parents to remove their children from public schools to send them to private or parochial schools.

More charter schools—especially for-profit charters—that suck more money from the public school system and tend to leave special-needs students and English language learners behind. He wants to tie teacher pay to standardized test scores, which—while framed as “accountability”—is usually code on the right for dismantling teacher unions.

Barack Obama’s record and vision on education stands in stark contrast to the approach favored by Romney. Now, to be sure, Obama has rankled many of those on the left with some of his education policies.

For instance, the Race to the Top initiative rewarded states that increased the number of charter schools, put in place teacher evaluation systems, and relied more heavily on standardized testing. And while he has yet to comprehensively revisit and revise No Child Left Behind, Obama has offered states relief from some of its most severe mandates which are due to kick in by 2014. With these policies, he has taken a more moderate approach that has not always played well with the base of the Democratic Party.

But with these reforms, the Obama administration has also promised to reward school districts across the country with more resources.

On the whole, however, there can be little denying that Obama sees education as the public good that it is. This is why he appropriated $100 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to education. At a time when state budgets were cratering, Obama saved 300,000 education jobs and prevented more than 160,000 teachers from being laid off or fired—something that would have begun the wholesale dismantling of public education in the United States.

This is why he took the bold step to remove the “middleman” in the college loan process by making the government the prime lender for student loans. With the savings from the sweetheart deal for banks, Obama doubled funding for Pell Grants to $17 billion and raised the amount of each award by more than 10 percent. More than 9 million college students took advantage of Pell Grants in 2011—a 50-percent increase from 2008.

The unprecedented levels of investment Obama has made in education through these policies and others (including tax credits for families to send their children to college and competitive grants for community colleges) undergirds his administration’s view that education is a public good for all to share—not because it is based on some idea of bleeding heart “charity” or, as the Tea Party likes to remind us, that he is a “socialist.”

It is in keeping with the most fundamental of all beliefs that Americans hold dear: The way to upward mobility is through self-improvement, and the way to self-improvement is through education.

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.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.