Words such as voucher, privatization, profit and corporation are often used as weapons by individuals and groups who oppose parental empowerment and school choice. Using words as weapons is especially common during periods of significant social change – we all do it – but the practice undermines civic discourse and makes finding common ground more difficult.
“Market” is another term school choice opponents use to connote evil, but our way of life is largely based on markets, and public education is increasingly embracing market processes as customized teaching and learning become more common. Our challenge moving forward is regulating public education markets in ways that maximizes their effectiveness and efficiency.
People access products and services in one of two ways. Either their government assigns them, or they choose for themselves. In the United States, we have historically allowed citizens to choose, and this system of provider and consumer choice is a “market.”
In a goods and services market, providers decide which goods and services they want to sell, and consumers choose those they want to buy. Markets, when implemented properly, are preferable to assignment systems because they better utilize people’s knowledge, skills and motivation. Citizens are allowed to use their own experiences and judgments when making selling and purchasing decisions, and this citizen empowerment maximizes the universe of ideas from which improvement and innovation derive.
When governments assign products and services to their citizens, they rely on a small group of people to decide what to offer. This top-down approach is less open, transparent and effective than the decision-making that occurs in markets, and it discourages creativity. This is why most improvements in goods and services emerge from market systems rather than government assignment systems.
Markets allow providers to learn from consumers. When governments dictate to consumers what goods and services they may have, their citizens’ true wants and needs are not fully considered. The voice of the customer is silent. But when consumers are empowered to choose for themselves, providers learn from these choices and adjust accordingly. In markets, this necessity to meet customers’ needs drives innovation and continuous improvement.