The State’s Interest in Public Education

Joseph W.H. Lough

It is tragic that the only voices remaining to defend public education today are those of organized teachers. This fact was once again brought home to me by the lead story in today’s NYT (“With Vouchers, States Shift Aid for Schools to Families,” Thursday, March 28, 2013, 1A). But the larger question perhaps is why the state should take any interest in public education at all? Why not, as many free market advocates insist, close the Department of Education and restore this fundamental responsibility back to the private market place where families are free to choose?

This, clearly, is the implication of the opening paragraph to Fernanda Santos’ and Motoko Rich’s story:

A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. Instead of simply financing a traditional system of neighborhood schools, legislators and some governors are headed toward funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home.

And if you hear overtones of the late Milton Friedman in this introduction, that surely is by design. Free to Choose was, of course, the title of Mr. and Mrs. Friedman’s hugely popular defense of free markets and privatization, among whose leading ideas was – you guessed it – school vouchers.

As I have noted elsewhere (Commonwealth), Mr. Friedman’s command of political history in general and US legal history in particular leaves much to be desired. Thus, although Mr. Friedman and his followers have gotten the notion that the US was founded on anti-federalist principles stuck to their brains, they hold this notion in perfect harmony with the fact that it was the US Constitution’s opponents who called themselves “anti-Federalists.” The point that needs making here is that the state has an interest in republican values and institutions; that is to say, values and institutions that defend and expand res publica, the wealth we hold in common.

Public education is of interest to the republic because we are all wealthier when we share a common foundation in public information and knowledge. This differs qualitatively from the kind of information and knowledge that benefits private interests, i.e., oikonomia. Economy has its roots in the private household or enterprise, the oikos. Here the despotes, (i.e., the master, pater familias, the head of the household, the CEO or Board Chair) has an interest in reproducing and, if possible, expanding the estate. And, in order to do so, he or she will cultivate different specializations among his or her staff and family and delegate different responsibilities to different members of the private enterprise. And, although the state has an interest in the success or failure of the private enterprise, it is forbidden from intervening in its internal workings, leaving to its administrators and owners responsibility for how the enterprise is operated.

Obviously the private enterprise is free to choose how it will operate. It need not charter itself to produce the highest returns for its shareholders. It could, instead, establish religious instruction as its goal, or charitable works, or instruction in some other form of knowledge or technique.

How does this oikonomia differ from politeia, from res publica? It differs in every possible way.

From the beginning, the republic must consider not the private interests of each private enterprise, but, to the contrary the shared interests of the political community. Moreover, whereas the private enterprise is, of necessity, governed hierarchically according to the specialized skills and different shares in the success or failure of the enterprise, the republic is, of necessity, governed by equally qualified and equally interested stakeholders whose differences with one another cannot be founded on private self-interest or private holdings, but only on their different views on what will best serve the public interest and general welfare.

And it is precisely here therefore that the debate over vouchers gets off track. If public education is actually an extension of the private enterprise, the private household, oikonomia, then those who want to close the Department of Education and completely privatize education are completely correct. In that case, since the state has no interest in the education of our children, not one cent of public resources should be directed to their education. It is a completely private matter.

If, on the other hand, the state does have an interest in the education of our children – if there is a shared universe of knowledge and information and skill in which we together, res publica, have an interest – then we would be ill-advised to grant any specific oikonomia, any specific private enterprise or household, a stake in the learning outcomes within public education, since this stake can only serve to promote the private interests of one or another private shareholder.

To be sure, the public’s interest in education does not abrogate or supersede the interests of the private oikos or household. I am free and remain free to instruct my children in the private knowledge and private information unique to my private enterprise, my oikonomia. I should even be free to withdraw my children from public institutions should I judge that they espouse knowledge or information that is harmful to my private interests. But, what I cannot do and must not do under any circumstances is grant private self-interest, private enterprise, an entry into public education. For to do so would confuse the public’s stake in education, with the stake of private shareholders.

The two are fundamentally different.

So, why is it tragic that organized public teachers are the only individuals who remain committed to public education? It is tragic because to the extent that all Americans ought to be equally interested in and committed to republican values and institutions – to the wealth we hold in common – all Americans share an interest in public education, in res publica, in the republic. That more Americans do not share this interest, that they instead see only their own private self-interest, at stake; that the education of their children has become a matter of the “pocketbook,” may therefore stand as a bitter and tragic harbinger of the health of the republic as a whole. We no longer share a common stake. We are no longer a republic. We are an economy.

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