All over the world there has been a shift from mass education, when the aim was to make higher levels of education accessible to broader sections of the population, to the marketisation of education, whereby education is being turned into “a commodity whose price reflects its quality”.
The idea is that schools should compete in a marketplace of schools where parents are the consumers. Business coalitions and the think tanks they fund have consistently argued that competition between schools will reap superior outcomes. David Kearns, CEO of Xerox, claimed that “Competition makes businesses perform. Choice can do the same for schools.” Governments have been convinced by this sort of rhetoric despite the lack of evidence to support it. At the international level, business-oriented education policies of competition and choice are being promoted by the World Bank, the WTO and the OECD.
In some nations, private schools are being included in the competition between schools, despite their superior resources. The idea inherent in private schools – that some parents should be able to buy a better education for their children – fits well with the market ideology behind the push for competition. But it conflicts with the ideal of equal educational opportunity for all children which dominated educational policy in most countries till the 1980s. The ideal was once so deeply entrenched in civilised values that the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1976) specified that “Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all” and free secondary education should be progressively introduced.
The right of every child to a high quality education has been replaced by the right of every parent to choose the school their child attends. Hardly an equivalent right given the inequity that results.
Education, once a public good, has become a private good. The market privileges those children whose parents are wealthier, or better-informed consumers of schooling. Rather than public education being a community enterprise, it “pits families and schools against each other in a battle for survival of the fittest”.
In many nations school choice has led to an increased segregation of schools based on socio-economic background or ethnicity. For example a recent US study found parents tend to choose schools on the basis of the race and class composition of the school.
Various governments have made attempts to prevent schools being so selective in their enrolment but they cannot prevent the variability between schools that a market system inevitably produces.
The whole concept of public education as providing equal opportunity to all children is being undermined by business efforts to get schools to behave like businesses, competing for students in an educational marketplace.
The combination of devolution, accountability, competition and marketisation encourages “schools to see themselves as free standing, entrepreneurial small businesses” and for parents and students to see themselves as consumers of the product that schools offer. (See also section on Schools as Businesses.)
Various publications have emerged which reaffirm the idea of “educational consumerism”, such as the Good Schools Guide in the UK and several newspaper supplements in Canada and elsewhere that provide consumer guidance to parents choosing schools.
In a market, it is inevitable that some businesses will fail, however, it is not acceptable for schools to fail and go bankrupt and be shut down, as it leaves the students attending it high and dry. Unlike businesses, however,
schools in difficulty cannot use the strategies available to private business: they are unable to relocate, to shed business not regarded as core, to change suppliers of raw materials [students] in order to improve the quality of output, or to undertake radical reorganisation (because they are unable to fund the high initial costs for retraining and re-equipping).
There are various ways in which education can be turned into a marketable commodity, subject to the “disciplines” and “vagaries” of the market. Schools can be funded on the basis of how many students enrol, with enrolments at each school open to all students, not just those in the immediate neighbourhood. Such an open enrolment system may be limited to public schools, as in England or New Zealand. Alternatively an open enrolment scheme may include private schools, which also receive government funding on the basis of enrolment numbers, as in some parts of Europe and Chile.
Another way of encouraging markets in education is to introduce government-funded vouchers. Voucher programs are a way to enable students to take their per-student government funding with them to the school of their choosing, including private schools. They have been promoted heavily by business interests in the US, despite public opposition to them.
Tax credits for tuition fees were designed as an alternative to vouchers that isn’t so obviously dependent on government money. Corporations are able to get income tax credit for the amount they give to nonprofit school funding organizations. In this way instead of paying their tax to the government they give it to a private scholarship fund that provides vouchers to children attending private or religious schools. In effect it is the same as a government funded voucher scheme except that the funds are completely controlled by a private fund and the accountability that would normally be part of a government program is missing.
Since vouchers are not publicly popular, the advocates of school choice in the US are increasingly turning to charter schools as the means of achieving it. The US Education Department allocated $490 million from its 2011 budget to promoting school choice, most of it for charter schools.