Betsy DeVos' Education Reform: An Analysis

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13th Dec 2019 Dissertation Reference this

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On February 7th 2017 Betsy DeVos was sworn in as the 11th United States Secretary of Education.  Her nomination by President Donald J. Trump was one of the most contentious cabinet nominations in recent history[1] and brought forth a groundswell of protests from public school advocates who rejected DeVos for her apparent lack of knowledge and experience with public schooling. In her role as a businesswoman and philanthropist, DeVos has long been a proponent of market driven school reform advocating and intensely lobbying for increased school choice, more access to vouchers, and charter schools. Her ideological stance has generally been one that seeks to embrace and expand parental rights through increased access to charters and vouchers, arguing that such increased autonomy will help lift the achievement of vulnerable low-income students as well as fight against what she refers to as the “education establishment,” a bureaucratic system that has “been blocking the doorway to reforms, fixes and improvements for a generation.”[2] At the core of DeVos’s vision for education is the belief that education is not a public good destined to serve all children equally, but rather a private commodity that is embraced by the free market where competition and demand drive success, standards, and ultimately raise achievement.

Many prominent voices in the education sphere have attacked the market-driven reform movement in its entirety, arguing that corporate reformers like DeVos are steadily dismantling the nation’s public school system under the guise of promoting educational equity. In their view, the movement does little to address critical questions regarding the substance and quality of children’s learning. Furthermore, the expanding role of the private sector has been perceived as a threat to a critical feature of American democracy: the provision of education as a public good.[3] As districts turn to privatization, the long-cherished notion of the American “common school” – a publicly funded and publicly managed school open to all – is increasingly coming under attack.[4] Critics of market-driven reform have argued that private sector influence in schools undermines their role in equalizing educational opportunity and preparing children for a future of democratic citizenship.[5]

Given what DeVos’s nomination signals for the educational landscape in the United States, already characterized by a wide array of non-state actors including for-profit organizations as well as many private public partnerships, this paper seeks to analyze the concept of public good, grounded in political economic theory, and questions its potential to counter the effects of privatization and commodification of education.  After a review of the theoretical foundations of the concept of public good and its limitations within the realm of education and more specifically the humanist approach to it, this paper argues that a philosophical reading of the principles underlying the concept rather than the economic concept itself are most valuable today.  Continuing the search for more ideal framework this paper then moves towards a notion of a common good and ultimately finds its collective and humanist undertones to be quite promising.  Lastly, after highlighting the inherent structural weaknesses of both vouchers and charters I find that neither in their current state of implementation in the United States are suitable to uphold a vision of education as a common good distributed on the basis of democratic equality.

Historical Underpinnings

Education has been deemed a human right and a public good in global public policy since 1945, being produced and advanced by international organizations ever since. In the decades following World War II, in the context of a growing welfare state encompassing all areas of social life and economic life, education was widely considered a public good and something to be to be provided by the state. Encompassed within this economic conceptualization of education as a public good, in addition with the right to be educated and the practice “peace education,”[6] also lies the humanist approach.  Largely adopted by international organizations like UNESCO[7], the humanistic approach to education is largely based on the principles of respect for human dignity, cultural diversity, life, and social justice. Additionally, within the specific confines of the American education system notions of democratic equality are also intertwined in its meaning. In practice the humanist approach is concerned with understanding the full development of the individual and considers the social, cultural, economic, ethical and civic dimensions of education. However, while there seems to be a general agreement on the right of all to access primary education, the role of the state, is increasingly being questioned by advocates of the free market like Betsy DeVos, who draw on neoclassical economics to support what are generally neoliberal policy views. 

Similarly, the humanist approach to education is gradually losing traction to a narrowly economic and utilitarian centered perspective that views education as a private good and commodity.  In this context there is an obvious and growing need for a structural normative principle that allows the humanist and democratic equality approach to education to face the hurdles presented by the changing educational landscape in the United States, conceptualized within a framework of increased marketization and choice.  Can the concept of public good serve as the normative infrastructure for the humanistic approach to education? The theoretical interpretations to the principle will first be discussed and then its limitations from a humanistic and democratic equality perspective will be exposed.

Education as a Public Good: An Ambiguous Idea

Despite it resting on a stable and rigorously defined economic concept, the very idea of education as a public good is vague.  Not only is it based on an understanding of public good that strays from the usual economic definition to which it refers, but it continues to wander from this standard understanding in multiple ways.  Generally attributed to Samuelson, who formalized it mathematically (1954, 1955), the principle definition of public good was first crafted by Musgrave (1941, 1959, 1969).  Musgrave defines a public good as “a good whose consumption does not diminish its availability to other consumers.”[8] It is bounded by two criteria: non-rival, implying that once it is produced for one person additional individuals can consume it at no additional costs, and non-excludability, meaning that once the good has been produced an individual cannot be prevented from utilizing it[9]. It is worth noting that while Musgrave believed non-exclusion to be the most important characteristic of public goods, Samuelson insisted it to be the non-rivalrous trait[10]. Within this framework, individuals usually act as ‘free riders’ in the sense that they are likely to underrepresent their true desire for these goods to avoid being taxed for their use, with the hope that others will pay for their use and upkeep. As a result of the phenomenon, the resource itself is usually underprovided as the market cannot accurately predict the exact demand. Thus, state intervention becomes necessary.  A natural example is street lighting where everyone benefits from its use including those who do not pay for it. However, street lighting might not be available if its upkeep is left in the hands of a private firm who cannot charge for its use[11].  Education does not match this definition in the sense that it is not a ‘pure’ public good, one that possesses both the characteristics of non-excludability and non-rivalrous.  However, while it is possible to exclude students from access to school, or their attendance could hypothetically prevent other individuals from benefiting from it due to reasonable restrictions on class size, conceptualizations of education as a public good are generally in line with this standard definition. With that being said there are alternative frameworks of education as a public good that, “either fuel the standard definition of public good with ethical considerations that are foreign to it or complement its core line of thought with other economic theories.”[12]

A commonly used approach is to inflate the standard conception of a public good internally with additional ethical considerations.  The notion of a public good is interpreted more loosely in the sense that education is viewed as non-excludable not on technicalities like attendance or tuition but rather on legal and or ethical grounds, thus providing a sound rationale for compulsory education. In this view, education is seen as an “impure public good”[13] since non-excludability is the only criteria met, and the lack of adequate supply that normally justifies state intervention is no longer linked to a lack a supply due to free riders, but rather a need to balance the private provisions of education. Since it is highly foreseeable that private actors will utilize any and all technical grounds to exclude certain populations of students from accessing school, namely those classes of citizens who cannot afford to pay, there becomes an inherent need for the state to intervene in order to insure some form of democratic equity in access.

Alternative notions of education as a public good draw on other economic theories of public expenditure and expand the definition externally. These theories maintain the connection between the failure of the market to supply and the necessity of the state to overcome a lack of provision, but draw on similar justifications for state intervention.  The noted market failure is likewise no longer a result of the free rider phenomena but rather tied to the economic notions of a “lack of rationality in economic agents, imperfect information and externalities.”[14] 

Individuals do exist who either because of a lack of rationality or proper information, resist paying for education as they cannot properly determine the benefits they might receive from it or simply wish to maximize their short term utility. As Musgrave (1959) states, “the advantages of education are more evident to the informed than the uninformed”[15] and those lacking education may not buy enough of it, even if they have the ability to afford it. Thus, the state is ultimately in a better position to judge what individuals need and may have to provide education out of social and ethical obligations. Furthermore, the general lack of individuals to weigh the long term benefits also justifies state intervention if one considers the spreading effects of education. Education creates collective benefits, referred to by scholars as positive externalities[16], which significantly surpass individual relatively short term benefits.          

Some collective benefits that are generally not taken into account by individuals are a country’s capacity to invent, compete, grow economically, as well as form cohesive social and civic bonds[17]. Individuals who are required to pay for education generally do not consider the larger implications of their education and therefore do not maximize the collective benefits. Expressed economically, this is a case where “market failure and state provision of education is required in order to bring the private costs and benefits in line with the social costs and benefits.”[18] From this perspective, education is a public good and thus requires state intervention.

Alternatively Musgrave (1959) also conceptualized the notion of a merit good[19] which refers to a “commodity that ought to be subsidized or provided free on a basis other than consumer choice because it is judged that an individual should not have it on the basis of ability and/or willingness to pay.”[20]  This merit good concept of providing services universally to all citizens regardless of their ability to pay is also reminiscent of Rawl’s (1971) concept of a “primary good”[21] and represents one avenue for approaching education through a social justice or ethical lens.  Similar notions to the concept of merit good can also be found in Smith’s writings as well as in much of Mill’s work.  Adam Smith claimed that education should be provided to everyone, regardless of wealth and should be subsidized enough “so that even a common labourer can afford it.”[22] His belief was largely that the education of all citizens would be a benefit to the whole of society, not only by better equipping its citizenry for the future, but also as a means of generating domestic tranquility particularly within democratic nations where the citizenry actively participated in government[23]. Likewise, Mill (1848) considered that “laisser-faire…should be the general practice,” although he noted exceptions to this rule specifically when the individual is not the best judge of his own self-interest, as “the uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation. Those who most need to be made wiser and better, usually desire it least, and if they desired it, would be incapable of finding the way to it by their own lights.”[24] Despite these historical philosophical frameworks, the concept of the merit good has been generally left out of neoclassical economic theory.

Ultimately throughout this discussion a synergy has arisen between the many diverse approaches to public good including the standard definition as well as the alternative notions of education as one itself.  Generally, market failure leads to a lack of supply of the good which then requires state intervention in order to ensure its adequate supply. With that being said there does still exist much confusion over the multitude of legitimate reasons for state provided education which differ significantly from one another.  Therefore, despite the concept of public good being grounded on a rigorously defined theory, in the context of education especially it has become muddled and at best confusing.

Limitations of Applying Public Good as Economic Concept to Education:

While generally confusing, the economic notion of public good has also been theoretically disputed on the grounds of not providing any definite guide for action.  Additionally, when one applies such an economic concept to education, the implications inherent in it very visibly oppose any humanist approach, failing to take into account any of the cultural, social or ethical aspects of one’s education.  Some scholars (Kaul, 2001) believe the concept of public good as defined Samuelson and Musgrave to be, “of limited analytical, and therefore also limited practical-political value”[25] as most government supplied goods do not fit their definition. In his defense Salmuelson thought of public goods purely as a polar opposite to the case of private goods. Any moral, political or social considerations lie out of the scope of neoclassical theory and are thus hardly addressed by the economic concept of public good. While Musgrave’s notion of the merit good does constitute and exception as it relies on ethical principles, it would be unrealistic to base such an ethical approach to education on the foundation of an economic definition of public good as the two frameworks work in direct opposition of each other.  Interestingly enough, Samuelson was submitted to harsh criticism within the year following the publication of his 1954 article by Enke (1955) who posited that economists have the moral responsibility to provide governments with guidelines instead of creating purely “unduly unrealistic”[26] conceptual theories that have little applicability to the real world.  Samuelson conceded that “the careful empiricist will recognize that many, though not all, of the realistic cases of government activity can be fruitfully analyzed as some kind of a blend of these two extreme polar cases” (Samuelson, 1955). In 1969, he even “expressed regret that his analysis was in terms of polar cases of pure collective consumption and private consumption goods.”[27] Thus, standard definitions of public good are lofty at best and their applicability is limited.

Within this discussion it is also critical to note that the standard for what constitutes private and public goods are not determined by some technical test, but rather socially constructed.  Societies collectively decide what goods are to be deemed public versus private and do so not based on the technical characteristics of that good, but rather on more abstract social and political grounds. For example, primary education can be thought of technically as a private good in the realms of exclusion and rivalry, however in most countries including the United States it takes the form, rather, as a good provided by the state that is usually free, universally available, and even at times compulsory. Thus, an adequate theory of public expenditure would need to penetrate “the murky waters of political sociology…to refer to the structure of social values”[28] (Margolis, 1955) and to “analyze public policy with values up front, not hidden behind the seemingly technical concept of public goods”[29] (Malkin and Wildawsky, 1991). 

The economic concept of public good also directly opposes the theoretical framework underlying the humanistic approach to education. The neoclassical theory for which the concept of public good largely rests, is constructed on a bed of assumptions; two of them being utilitarianism and “methodological individualism”[30]. Methodological individualism largely amounts to the claim that all “social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions, which in turn must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors.”[31] Complementing this view, the utilitarian approach assumes that individuals are rational and motivated self-interested beings who seek to maximize their utility, which usually takes the form of balancing the benefits of a decision against its costs. Furthermore, this cost benefit analysis also holds for the state, which represents the sum interests of all individuals. Thus, well-crafted and truly representative public policy should seek to maximize the sum utility of all individuals.  These two pillars in tandem with the neoclassical theory in general directly conflict with the humanistic approach to education, as it assigns value for things that can be directly assessed in monetary terms, like financial benefits, while largely ignoring things that can’t.

One dominant approach to education that grew out of traditional neoclassical theory was Becker’s (1964) theory on human capital which regards education primarily as an investment that bestows mere financial benefits upon both the individual and the collective society in which they reside.[32]  An additional line scholarly thought in neoclassical economics (Pigou, 1924; Coase, 1960; Demsetz, 1964) has argued that such positive externalities do not necessarily require state provided education, but rather could be similarly addressed through the means of taxes, property rights, and other incentives. Following in the footstep of Pigou who primarily advocated for the taxing of externalities, Friedman (1955) also considered taxing by the state in lieu of providing education in order to address the positive externalities it inherently generates, and ultimately concluded economically that, “Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy.”[33] Interesting enough, this publication by Friedman was the first major scholarly work to introduce the language of “school choice” in education policy. Throughout his career, Friedman framed the school system in economic terms, arguing that parents and students should be viewed as consumers of educational services with the freedom to select from among a range of providers. The expansion of “choice,” he insisted, would motivate schools to innovate and improve in order to meet consumer demands for high-quality learning. With that being said, in the same article Friedman also discusses the issue of vouchers, for which he has serious concerns, as he notes the possibility that they could “exacerbate class distinctions” or be used “as a means of evading the Supreme Court Case ruling against segregation.”[34] 

It is thus not difficult to see how the individualistic perspectives encompassed within neoclassical theory tend to ignore the many moral, cultural, social, or even civic dimensions of education purely because they are theoretically undervalued by individuals whose first priority is their own self-interest. Furthermore, it becomes fairly easy to envision students as consumers and education as a commodity if the values of the individual matter more than the collective benefits of education itself. This, combined with the fact that education does not in of itself meet the criteria for non-excludability and has externalities that can be addressed by other means aside from state intervention[35] implies that public good when grounded in such neoclassical theory, can serve as a sound justification for the privatization and commodification of education.

Moving Forward: Towards a Notion of Common Good

The fragmenting nature of private market based intervention in American education has significantly challenged the role of the state in terms of funding and provision over the past few decades. These rather recent transformations impact the principle of education as a public good in three respects. Notions of equity and social justice, brought to light by civil society, become the primary motivators for political decision making, not market failure. In addition, the state’s sharing of responsibilities with a wide array of private actors as “decision-maker, financer and provider of education”[36] results in a blurring of boundaries between the public and the private realms. Both these trends raise the question concerning the relevance of the principle of education as a public good, which links state intervention with market failure. Acknowledging the growing trend of privatization and commodification especially now in the wake of DeVos’s nomination, there must exist a call for a humanistic and holistic approach to education that goes “beyond narrow utilitarianism and economism to integrate the multiple dimensions of human existence.”[37]  

As has been shown, the notion of public good in the realm of education is no longer relevant to support such a holistic, democratically equal, and humanistic vision of education as it quite simply fails to consider the ethical, social and cultural aspects to one’s educational process. Additionally, it does not adequately adapt to the newfound role of the state in addressing and confronting these changes to the educational landscape. When grounded in the neoclassical theory from which it stems, it can also serve as a justification for the very marketization and commodification that DeVos and her supporters continue to lobby for.  One alternative option to conceptualizing education is to utilize the very theoretical framework supporting the humanist approach to education with embedded notions of democratic equality in order to conceive it not as a public good, but rather a common good. 

Philosophically, the concept of a common good has a collective dimension to it that allows our conceptualization to extend “beyond the instrumental concept of the public good in which human well-being is framed by individualistic socio-economic theory.  From a ‘common good’ perspective, it is not only the ‘good life’ of individuals that matters, but also the goodness of the life that humans hold in common.  It cannot be personal or parochial good.”[38] Common goods are thus generally those that add to the general interest of all, collectively reinforcing society and allowing it to function more cohesively and individuals to live better[39].  Just like a public good, a common good must be defined by the state, civil society, and the market collectively. Departing from a utilitarian conceptualization of education the notion of common good reinserts the economy and wealth disparities into its social framework of understanding and allows for the issue of education commodification to be addressed while also enabling the social, ethical, cultural, and civic aspects to education to be fully considered[40].  When compared to notions of a public good, the humanist and democratically equal undertones of a common good framework seem promising and applicable in the American political context. 

So What? Implications for the American Political Context

One of the highlighted flaws of the public good approach to education is that it failed to provide direct guides to government on how to act.  The notion of a common good, while providing a significantly more stable and equitable infrastructure for the humanist approach to education still lacks concrete instructions or clear recommendations in regards to the structure and implementation of education.  It is unrealistic to think, especially given that DeVos is now in office that the American political educational structure will pull back on its support of market based reformed and increased choice strategies in the foreseeable future.  Knowing this, it is thus necessary to contextualize these reform mechanisms within the framework of a diverse and liberally democratic society.

For sixteen years, within our liberally democratic and diverse society, the standards-based and market-driven reform strategies enshrined in No Child Left Behind (2001) which mandated “high” expectations, strict accountability, competition, and privatization, have profoundly shaped the daily experiences of children, teachers and families nationwide. The replacement of the legislation was delayed repeatedly until 2015, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace NCLB. The new legislation enacted a number of significant changes, including the devolution of authority over interventions for ‘failing’ schools back to state governments. In the brief time since ESSA’s enactment, many state education departments have continued to adhere to the standards-based and market-driven mechanisms of reform that defined and guided NCLB. Such policies have been particularly consequential in the nation’s high-poverty schools, which continue to grapple disproportionately with the pressures of high stakes testing, the demoralization of “failure,” and the fragmenting nature of market-driven interventions.  Referencing this brief history of educational reform Betsy DeVos has frequently claimed that “They [the educational establishment] tested their model, and it failed … miserably.”[41] What follows is an analysis of her proposed interventions, namely expanding choice through vouchers and increasing charters.  As will be highlighted, both reform structures in their current state possess their own swath of distinctive problems that make them too unstable a foundation for distributing the democratically equal common good of education in the United States.

Vouchers: Limited Supply & Quality

Historically, the legal battle for vouchers in the United States provided by the state for education has hinged on its ability to provide equal opportunities to a wide array of citizens that are able to freely exercise choice.  In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) often regarded as the first constitutional test case for vouchers, Chief Justice Rehnquist penned that an Ohio voucher program was not in violation of the establishment clause as it was “entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.”[42]  Despite many mixed quantitative findings on the ultimate success of vouchers released over the past 14 years since the decision was heard, DeVos continues to channel the free market theory that parents will utilize vouchers to choose good schools over bad ones.[43]  While it is true that vouchers do have the potential to physically lift students from dangerous school environments, the impacts they make on raising the actual achievement of students have become increasingly questionable and concerning.

Over the past 10 years, children in the Washington D.C. school district have served as an experimental test case in school choice under the auspices of the D.C Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded voucher program in the United States[44].  An evaluation of the program published in April 2017 by the Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences found that students who utilized vouchers, allotted to them based on a random lottery, to attend private schooling institutions performed significantly worse on standardized tests than their public school counterparts who did not use vouchers. Specifically, the evaluation reports that math scores of students who utilized the scholarships were nearly 7 percentage points lower than students who did not receive one and that the “negative academic effect was even more pronounced for students who were not attending a low-performing school when they were awarded the vouchers as their scores were 14.6 percentage points lower in reading and 18.3 percentage points lower in math — and for students in elementary school”[45] On a positive note, families participating in the program reported on average that they felt the private schools were much safer compared to the alternatives, which in turn influenced a slightly higher parental satisfaction rating overall[46].  As DeVos has continually stood by vouchers as one of the key fixes to inferior public schooling and promised to continue to fund the Washington program while also expanding voucher access across the nation, this report if anything raises serious concerns.  

Even from a supply side economic standpoint, the issue of vouchers is extremely troubling.  While the demand for more voucher-based private school choice programs might certainly exist in the United States there is currently an extreme lack of supply or in some cases none entirely.  Put simply, there are only so many quality seats in existing private schools and if the trend to utilize vouchers fueled by DeVos and the administration continues the increased demand has the potential to overwhelm the supply of quality seats in comparatively good schools. School choice as a fundamental principle, if implemented ethically and correctly, can generally help good schools grow, fill open seats in existing schools, and help to promote the construction of new and ‘better’ schools[47].  Charter schools, as a result of their proprietary public-private funding structures coupled with what are usually many additional financial incentives provided by the state, have a much easier time accomplishing all of these goals compared to private voucher receiving schools.  While vouchers do provide private institutions with the dollar amount needed to cover per pupil expenses, such funding is usually minimal and is not nearly enough to fund future expansion projects or even add additional seats in the coming year. Some proposed solutions involve, “Helping schools access bonds and other low-cost financing through moral obligation pledges, sovereign school funds, and credit support,”[48] however these fixes should be carefully scrutinized as they often ignore many ethical and social concerns in favor of simply “loosening the bottleneck on supply.” [49] 

Vouchers have recently gained a renewed fiery traction as the positive alternative along with charters to failing public schools, championed by DeVos as the means of enabling educational mobility among all students and families. If vouchers are to be utilized and encouraged in the future as I imagine they will be these issues of supply and quality must first be seriously considered.  If the purpose of vouchers is to enable choice, such that even low-income minority students possess the ability to access quality education regardless of their residential location or financial situation, what happens then if upon surveying the options of a district no better alternatives exist, or all the voucher seats within a quality private school have been already filled? One possible answer is that those families who can afford to pay the normal attendance fees of a private education will either do so, move elsewhere, or commit their child to homeschooling, while those cannot afford to pay, residentially relocate, or accurately deduce the difference in quality among schools will keep their child in their current schooling environment. It is not difficult to imagine within this framework of limited supply and quality, how the population of youth who are in the most need of mobility and access will have the hardest time acquiring it.  

Charters: Experimentations in Autonomy

Once viewed as means of educational experimentation where new educational theories could be tested and evaluated free of bureaucratic red tape and significant oversight charter schools, like vouchers, have taken center stage on the educational reform debate.  While most are not ‘for-profit’ organizations, charters are often criticized for their zero-tolerance discipline policies, philanthropic board structures, and generally too much autonomy.  While a consensus is emerging that, overall most charters do not provide better or worse educational outcomes than comparable public schools, advocates argue that their existence places pressure on public schools to improve, and some of them see eventual gains in student test scores.[50]  The granting of charter schools to various groups or organizations, effectively allowing them to operate public schools that are exempt from some regulations, coincides with the desire of freedom advocates who seek market deregulation and the avoidance of bureaucratic red tape through increased autonomy.  With that being said, if charters are implemented ethically and placed in particularly impoverished or resource depleted neighborhoods, they can also satisfy the demands of equality advocates in delivering expanded educational opportunities to low income and minority youth.  Thus, if implemented ethically and grounded in the humanist approach to education as a common good, there is potential for a “democratic convergence of justification across ideological lines”[51]  This fact is somewhat promising considering that charters will continue to be championed by DeVos and the Trump administration in the near future.

Concluding Remarks

Neither choice based voucher programs nor charter schools in their current state are fit to serve as the structure undergirding a vision of education as a common good to be distributed on the basis of democratic equality in the United States.  Both systems operationalize education as a commodity that is bestowed upon an individual without any consideration of their social, emotional, physical, or cultural place in society.  While one places a fixed dollar amount on the means of access to a ‘quality’ seat in a private school, the other exercises the autonomy inherent in its structure to meet the needs and desires of the individuals who continue to sponsor it financially, oftentimes at the expense of the children it seeks to educate. Both are imperfect mechanisms for reform and yet, they will be continued to be championed, probably now more intensely so than ever, by an individual who made much of her private wealth lobbying for their increased implementation. 

Regardless of this unavoidable fact, it is necessary to fully imagine what a vision of education as a common good distributed on the basis of democratic equality might truly look like.  One of the inherent problems with the concept of equity and equality in this discussion is the definition itself. What does it mean to be truly democratically equitable when deciding how to distribute funding to the various schools within a district? Can diverting funds and potentially restricting the amount of previously available resources from a well performing school to the most educationally disadvantaged be justified in the name of democratic equality? Theoretically, within a liberal democratically equitable society individuals would be viewed not as merely recipients of learned knowledge but rather active participants in the creation of a vibrant and collective community. Deeply engrained within its theoretical core is the potential for the notion of a collective shared fate, where individuals would look to the betterment of themselves as well as others around them as benefiting the whole of society.  In search of a true representative educational structure individuals would seek to erect schools that not only welcomed all forms of diversity whether it be linguistic, religious, socioeconomic, racial/ethnic etc., but would also view their interaction with that diversity as a necessary component of producing the next generation of capable, tolerant, and autonomous citizens that would one day also be able to effectively manage and participate in a representative and democratically equal society. 

If we are to move forward with this vision, the largest obstacle we must first learn to address is our nation’s comfort level with inequality, which very often makes our current situation seem tolerable. Furthermore, the question we must be asking now is how then, practically, can true equitability and democratic equality be established and engrained within the psyche of educational reformers that operate within such an interconnected and highly political system that has historically maintained inequality.  It must also be remembered that educational projects that seek equity as access to equal quality schools will differ significantly in their approaches from those that seek equity as equal educational opportunities as well as those that seek equity as merely adequacy.  To end in the words of Betsy DeVos, “This not a Left or Right issue. This is an American issue. We need education to work for every child.”[52]

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  • McShane, M. (2015). Funding Growth, Expanding Opportunity: Novel Funding Mechanisms for Schools of Choice (pp. 1-17, Publication). American Enterprise Institute.
  • Mike P. Timpane, Karen E. Ross, Dominic J. Brewer, Brian Gill and Kevin Booker, “Rhetoric vs. Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools” (Arlington, Virginia: The RAND Corporation, 2007), 29.
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[1] Huetteman, E., & Alcindor, Y. (2017, February 07). Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary; Pence Breaks Tie. Retrieved April 03, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/us/politics/betsy-devos-education-secretary-confirmed.html

[2] Strauss, V. (2017, February 23). Analysis | ‘The system is failing too many kids’ – text of Education Secretary DeVos’s speech at CPAC. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/02/23/the-system-is-failing-too-many-kids-text-of-education-secretary-devoss-speech-at-cpac/

[3] Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, 11.

[4] Mike P. Timpane, Karen E. Ross, Dominic J. Brewer, Brian Gill and Kevin Booker, “Rhetoric vs. Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools” (Arlington, Virginia: The RAND Corporation, 2007), 29.

[5] Ravitch, Reign of Error, 300.

[6] Ben-Porath, S. R. (2009). Citizenship under fire: democratic education in times of conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (p. 57)

[7] Education Beyond 2015 (pp. 1-10, Publication No. 194). (2014). Paris: United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (p.2)

[8] Samuelson, P. A. (1954). The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 36 (4), 387-389. (p.387)

[9] Desmarais-Tremblay, M. (2017). Musgrave, Samuelson, and the Crystallization of the Standard Rationale for Public Goods. History of Political Economy, 49(1), 59-92. (p.60)

[10] Ibid

[11] Daviet, B. (2016). Revisiting the Principle of Education as a Public Good (pp. 1-11), Working paper). United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (p. 3).

[12] Ibid, (p.4)

[13] Ibid, (p.4)

[14] Stoddard, C., & Corcoran, S. P. (2007). The political economy of school choice: Support for charter schools across states and school districts. Journal of Urban Economics, 62(1), 27-54. (p.36)

[15] Musgrave, R. A. (1959). Theory of public finance; a study in public economy. (p.14)

[16] King, A. (2008). Public Goods, Externalities, and Education [Review of The New Democratic Federalism for Europe]. Library of Economics and Liberty. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/08/public_goods_ex.html

[17] King, A. (2008). Public Goods, Externalities, and Education [Review of The New Democratic Federalism for Europe]. Library of Economics and Liberty. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/08/public_goods_ex.html

[18] Daviet, B. (2016). Revisiting the Principle of Education as a Public Good (pp. 1-11), Working paper). United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (p. 4).

[19] Ver Eecke, W. (2003). Adam Smith and Musgrave’s concept of merit good. The journal of socio-economics, 31 (6), 701-720.

[20] Ibid

[21] Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University. (p.79)

[22] Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edwin Cannan, ed. 1904. Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved April 2, 2017 from the World Wide Web: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN1.html (V.1.183)

[23] Ibid

[24] Mill, John Stuart. Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy. William J. Ashley, ed. 1909. Library of Economics and Liberty.  http://www.econlib.org/library/Mill/mlP73.html (V.11.23)

[25] Kaul, I. (2001). Public Goods: Taking the Concept to the 21st Century. The Market of the Public Domain. Drache D. (ed.), 255-273. London and New York: Routledge. (p. 3)

[26] Enke, S. (1955). More on the Misuse of Mathematics in Economics: A Rejoinder. Review of Economics and Statistics, 37 (2), 131-133. (p.132)

[27] Hammond, J. D. The Economist as Social Physician: Stigler’s Thesis Revisited. (p.19)

[28] Margolis, J. (1955). A comment on the pure theory of public expenditure. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 347-349.

[29] Malkin, J., & Wildavsky, A. (1991). Why the traditional distinction between public and private goods should be abandoned. Journal of theoretical politics, 3 (4), 355-378. (p. 357)

[30] Heath, J. (2005, February 03). Methodological Individualism. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/methodological-individualism/

[31] Ibid

[32] Becker, G. S. (1964). Human capital: A theoretical and empirical analysis, with special reference to education.

[33] Friedman, M. (1955). The Role of Government in Education. Economics and the Public Interest, 1-14. (p. 13)

[34] Ibid, (p. 5)

[35] Coase, R. H. (1960). The Problem of Social Cost. Economic Analysis of the Law, 1-44. (p.41)

[36] Hostetler, K. (2003). The Common Good and Public Education. Educational Theory, 53(3), 347-351. (p. 349)

[37] Tang, Q. (2015). Rethinking education: towards a global common good? Paris: UNESCO Publishing. (p.77)

[38] Ibid, p. 349

[39] Tang, (p. 77)

[40] Ibid, 78

[41] Strauss, V. (2017, February 23). Analysis | ‘The system is failing too many kids’ – text of Education Secretary DeVos’s speech at CPAC. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/02/23/the-system-is-failing-too-many-kids-text-of-education-secretary-devoss-speech-at-cpac/

[42] “Zelman v. Simmons-Harris”. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2017, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/2001/00-1751

[43] Leonhardt, D. (2017, May 01). School Vouchers Aren’t Working, but Choice Is. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/02/opinion/school-vouchers-charters-betsy-devos.html

[44] Dynarski, M., Rui, N., Webber, A., & Bachman, M. (2017). Evaluation of the DC

Opportunity Scholarship Program (pp. 1-84, Publication No. NCEE 2017-4022).

Department of Education: Institute of Education Sciences. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20174022/pdf/20174022.pdf

[45] Ibid, (p. 23)

[46] Ibid, (p.24)

[47] McShane, M. (2015). Funding Growth, Expanding Opportunity: Novel Funding Mechanisms for Schools of Choice (pp. 1-17, Publication). American Enterprise Institute.

[48] Ibid, (p.8)

[49] Ibid, (p.12)

[50] Figlio D and Hart C (2010) Competitive effects of means-tested school vouchers. National Bureau of Economic Research.

[51] Ben-Porath, S. (2012). School choice and educational opportunity: Rationales, outcomes and racial disparities. Theory and Research in Education, 10(2), 171-189.

[52] Strauss, V. (2017, February 23). Analysis | ‘The system is failing too many kids’ – text of Education Secretary DeVos’s speech at CPAC. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/02/23/the-system-is-failing-too-many-kids-text-of-education-secretary-devoss-speech-at-cpac/

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