Slapped by the Invisible Hand

Ken Gorrellby Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

Constructive criticism is a good thing. At least that’s what I tell myself when I receive it. And I received some from readers – including a state legislator – about my previous essay, “The Cost of a Snark.” I was told it was long on problem, short on solution, which highlights both the limits of a 750-word essay and the nature of the challenge I addressed: Despite laws and court orders, nobody in this state or any other can answer the question, “What is an adequate public education and how much should it cost to provide it?”
We can buy almost any product or service imaginable from the comfort of our La-Z-Boy. Somebody else has figured out how much it costs to produce, how to bring it to market, and how much to charge. The same can’t be said for the services of the public education system we support each year with hundreds of billions of our tax dollars.
We certainly know how much we are charged – $12-13,000 per student annually on average, or about $115,000 per student through high school (accounting for the drop-outs). We know where all that money goes, line item by line item, based on our school’s budget committee report. And we know the results of all that spending: Average or below performance in math, reading, and science compared to our economic competitors. What we don’t know is whether what we pay for meets a baseline definition of “adequate” or how much it would cost to provide if we were to conduct a zero-baseline review. If we continue to accept business as usual, we never will know.
The great thing about seemingly intractable problems is that they often have simple solutions. Not simple to implement, but simple to state. In this case: Let the market decide. If we were to let Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” do the heavy lifting, we would know the definition of “adequate” (and would discover that there are as many definitions as there are children), and we would know the market-based cost for providing it to each child.
Businesses focus on keeping costs in check; aligning prices to customer expectations; competing for customers on value; benchmarking products against competitors; and innovating to meet market demand. The market works wonders, providing us with choices for everything from the proverbial widget to the most arcane item you didn’t know existed, but now that you know, you want. No single entity controls the market; there is no Great Oz behind a curtain. Powered by human ingenuity, the market is as close to a perpetual motion machine as physics will allow, constantly working to meet our needs and wants. Why do we exempt public education from the magic of the market?
The short answer: Inertia, sacred cows, and human nature. Built up over 100 years, our public education system is complex, cumbersome, and overburdened with regulation. It resists change even when shown to be failing large numbers of children. Yet for many, public education is a sacred cow. I’ve seen it referred to as “foundational” to American democracy despite the fact that our Republic was conceived, built, and thrived long before compulsory public education gained momentum in the 1920s. Human nature being what it is, some people will accept a dysfunctional status quo if they benefit from it, and many benefit from our heavily unionized and bureaucratized system.
The public education system has no Edison, no Da Vinci, no Franklin, no Jobs. Without innovators, there can be no innovation. Innovators need two things: The opportunity to experiment and the potential to profit from success. Neither of these exists in today’s public system. We need to use Adam Smith’s invisible hand to slap us out of our stupor. The shock would hurt some, but help most, and children most of all. The way to bring the magic of the market to public education is the let the money follow the child.
When the money followings the child, parents will be empowered to make their own informed choices for education as they do as consumers of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and technology. Innovators will focus on meeting the demands for education services by creating different products and delivery models. Government can define the boundaries and regulate the education market as it does for most products we buy, but the market itself would be consumer-driven. This single innovation would redefine “public education” in America, putting the focus where it should be: The parents and the children.

Ken can be reached at