Market Economy versus Market Society

A recent opinion column from the Lafayette Journal-Gazette caught my eye. Written by Ed Eiler, a former school superintendent, it began

Three recent newsworthy items deserve our attention. The first is a study in the American Educational Research Journal, which concluded rising income inequality in the U.S. is a primary cause of the growing economic segregation of schools. As the gap grows, affluent families are more likely to segregate themselves into enclaves where there are few poor children in the public schools.

The second is a report issued by the Indiana Department of Education that calculated the net increased cost for the state’s education voucher program to be $53.2 million. Some 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

The final report is one completed by the National Conference of State Legislatures addressing educational reform. The report acknowledges there are no silver bullets and the present efforts at reform have failed. The report recognizes the importance of having all stakeholders be a part of the process of improving our schools.

Why does any of this matter? All of these reports can be tied to the effort to privatize education.

Eiler then references a book by Michael Sandel, who makes an important distinction between markets that deal with material goods, which he finds “valuable and productive” and markets operating  in areas where they do not belong, in our civic lives.

Should educational opportunities be made available based upon the ability to pay? Should we pay children to read books or get good grades? Should people receive health care on the basis of their ability to pay? Should access to politicians and the political system be governed by those who have more money? Should legal representation be affected by one’s financial circumstances? Should you be able to pay someone else to take your place in serving your country? Should citizenship be for sale?

Sandel asserts markets may in fact undermine or crowd out non-market attitudes and values worth caring about and change the character of some goods and social practices. He writes that the most corrosive effect of markets is the loss of our commonality – “we’re all in it together.”

This argument underscores what I have sometimes called a “category mistake.” I’ve previously written that our misguided and unsuccessful drug war is a consequence of placing drug abuse in the category of criminal justice rather than public health. Similarly, too many school reform efforts categorize education as another consumer good, rather than a public necessity.

Of course we all want our children to receive educations that will enable them to compete for jobs and status, just as we all want university graduates to find gainful employment. But the purpose of education goes far beyond those “consumer” goals. Genuine education is not job training; it both enriches the lives of recipients (a market good) and creates good citizens (a social good). As political scientist Benjamin Barber has written, public education is constitutive of a public.

So long as we think of education as a consumer good, a “product” we purchase for our children, we will continue to have affluent families segregate themselves from poorer communities, and we will continue to exacerbate inequality.

Public education is–and must be categorized as–a public good. And an exceptionally important one. Properly understood, it is not something that private markets can provide.


  1. Unfortunately, we are in an era where the bigotry of religion, class, race, gender or ethnicity has become so magnified by the public discourse of exclusion and denigration that a large segment of the voting population considers those they do not value as not worth educating, keeping health or requiring equal treatment by the rule of law.
    As I may have mentioned before, there is a billboard on I70 just west of the Ohio/Indiana state line that has the names and logos of all of the public universities in Indiana touting them as the places where the workers of the future are being prepared. Not the citizens, but the workers. And, of course, in Indiana, vouchers insure that those with money can buy the commodity of education without any concern for the public good of all citizens of our fair state.
    With our governor running for the Vice-Presidency, the issue of educational opportunity should be front and center in the discussion prior to November’s vote. We know that will not happen as the debates will prove only that facts mean nothing when hate and anger further fill the coffers of the malefactors of great wealth who continue to divide us and control the discourse.

  2. You hit the nail on the head.
    Learning to think is much more important than learning what to think.

  3. The original intent of the “Choice Scholarship” or vouchers as most call them, was to supposedly offer an opportunity for a student at poverty level go to a private school for what was presumed to be a better educational setting. The non-educator proponents of this legislation never had any intention of giving any opportunity to anyone other than those that wanted to segregate themselves and their children from people of color.

    All you have to do to figure this out is look at the numbers. The tuition at Chatard High School (one of the lower private school fees ) is $12,335 for the year. In Indianapolis, a family of 5 that has a household income of $52,000 can get at voucher for 90% of the state amount that would go to the public school; for IPS that would be $6,063 that would go to the private school. Parents that would send their child to Chatard would have to come up with the difference, in this scenario it would be $6,272. Add to that the near $1,000 for books, technology fees, sports fees, extra-curricular fees (like clubs) it adds up to a family in poverty or just middle class could not afford the private school. There are even fees for special education services that are charged for students that need help with reading or math and those can be $2,000 or more depending on the services needed. Some private schools offer financial aid, but it never covers the entire cost after the voucher. Families in poverty that send their children to these schools often find themselves deep in debt if they try to keep up with the part of the tuition that is not covered by the voucher.

    Vouchers were only intended to financially support religious schools, promote the ideology of religious conservatives, allow segregation and privatize the public schools in low-income areas. There is absolutely nothing about vouchers that works for anyone.

  4. Will either of the major party candidates for President stop privatizing education? Will either Gregg or Holcomb stop it? Can you conceive the Indiana Legislature reversing itself? How many elections are necessary to wrest corporate control of IPS from the privatizors?

  5. Some words that bear repeating:
    “High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    But, now, the context is different. When we can recover the context in which he said this, we might return to the concept of an inclusive society and education’s role in it. But, even then, his experience came from Shortridge, and not Manual. However, we can strive.

  6. “Vouchers were only intended to financially support religious schools…” (Teresa Kendall). How does this not violate the Constitution?

  7. Everything about our public education system is backwards. It will take a very long time to fix what has been destroyed over the last 35 years.

  8. Wayne Moss, our state Supreme Court claims it does not. Every time a voucher is issued to a religious school that is “pro-life,” I know that my tax dollars are supporting views that are anti-woman and it makes me sick.

  9. State and federal courts have decided that since the voucher goes to the parent and not the school, the voucher can be spent at religious schools. Some 90% of private schools are religious schools. The courts used to rule that if an activity is illegal to do directly, then it’s also illegal to do it indirectly. Vouchers would be considered ‘money laundering’.

    Private schools can raise tuition by the amount of the voucher and discriminate on the basis of religion and church membership, wealth, physical or mental or emotional handicaps, test scores, ability to provide one’s own transportation, and parental availability to volunteer at school.

    Only traditional public schools welcome all students of all religions, test scores, economic strata, races, special needs, and wealth. But vouchers for the students the SCHOOL chooses to enroll are financed by cutting the public schools which accept all students. The courts have made a huge mistake which permits state-funded segregation of students by whatever categories the private school prefers. That’s why it’s SCHOOL choice and not PARENT choice.

  10. I, like you, am an individual. Because I am an old one my story is largely written. Some of that story could be about choices that I have made that established my unique path for the journey. They would describe an insignificant portion of my experiences though.

    The richness has to do almost exclusively with others who surrounded me in person or by their stories and accomplishments.

    Pick a name. George Washington for instance. Look at the role that he played in my life some 250 years after his life. Look at how many of his ideas and accomplishments were ingredients in my story.

    So my education is a tiny part of me. The education of others a huge part.

    That’s what makes public education, really public, such an influential part of all of our stories.

    We could approximate the dollars that I put into my education vs the dollars that I have invested in the education of others. Of course the latter would be a tremendously larger number than the former. But so would the contribution of others to my story be much greater than my decisions.

    The context of our lives forms the vast majority of who we are. The return on my investment in educating others is larger I am sure in terms of my life than the return on my investment in educating me.

    It’s both a duty and a pleasure to use the proceeds of my life to pay back the public that I have always lived fully immersed in.

  11. School vouchers do NOT GO TO THE PARENT!!! The parent decides which school the voucher goes to for their child. Many select religious schools, taking advantage of the means they didn’t have otherwise, to send their child to a private religious school of their choice. As has been stated; many current voucher students have never attended a public school, that requirement was dropped…or is being ignored by the system. Other benefits, such as free breakfast and lunch provisions, are NOT transferred from public schools for the financially eligible students who have been vouchered into private schools.

  12. Bravo, Sheila, and thank you. Once again you elevate the conversation. We can, and should spend time and energy on the details of how our education dollars are spent. BUT our focus and guiding principle should be WHY we spend them. And we spend them because public education is a public good for a better self-governing community at all levels. Equipping ourselves and our children with a good education to be able to earn more money is a secondary outcome. And it’s an outcome that more people would be able to enjoy if we properly kept our focus on the guiding principle of public education. Not everything is a consumer good! Actually some of the most important things are not. They are of the common good.

  13. Even in the area of life where economics supposedly works, it fails to live up to the advertising. One of the key pillars that a fully free market depends on is labor mobility – which essentially doesn’t exist: There are towns all over the US whose economies have collapsed and which still are full of unemployed people. 90% of people are unwilling or unable to move away from family & friends.

    Even those who can move, can’t find retraining at their destinations. This is Market Failure, plain & simple, but the ideology of Capitalism is just as strong, pervasive, and irrational as the ideology of Communism was 50 years ago.

  14. I am reading “The Soul of Black Folk,” by W.E.B. Du Bois. In Chapter VI, available at, he makes an impassioned plea for higher education for the sake of learning and personal enhancement, as opposed to technical training. His argument supports Sheila’s thesis that education is a public good whose benefits spread the farthest when granted to all equally.

  15. America and its sub-parts have become captive of corporate mindsets and the “market” .economy. We are not our brother’s keeper; we are Wall Street’s keeper. The right wing has poisoned our trust in government in order to make us prey and have done a good job of it. We could not emulate Denmark (where no one is poor, education is free, medical care is free, and yes, taxes are high) if we tried. The “market” isn’t having it. Total corporate control is nearing, and in my view is a greater danger to our democracy than Putin and ISIS combined.

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