Education is a public good, not a commodity

Obama’s education policies haven’t always been popular among Democrats.

Education is the great equalizer, the bedrock of the American Dream. Despite the highest levels of income disparity since the Great Depression, at a time when the personal wealth of the middle class has fallen to early 1990s levels, the unshakeable belief in upward mobility nonetheless still lives in our DNA—and education is its engine.

This is why, during every economic downturn including the recent Great Recession, Americans flock to educational institutions—to get retrained, to finish that degree, to rekindle the desire to better themselves. This is why Thomas Jefferson, author of those self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence and one of our greatest presidents, wanted the University of Virginia to be his most precious gift to America.

It is for these reasons that the United States was the first country in the modern world to create compulsory, universal public education. Universal means just that—everyone.

In other words, education is what we political scientists call a “public good.” Like clean air or water, or personal and national security, education is so basic to the wellbeing of a democratic society that everyone must receive its benefits. But everyone must also share in its costs.

Even if I don’t have children, or if I don’t send the ones I do have to a public school, the belief is that some of my tax dollars should go to educating your children because ultimately their education will benefit me and society as a whole.

However, not all share or understand the concept of education as a “public good.” There are those who choose to see education as a “commodity” better left to the forces of the market, like laundry detergent or a chain of restaurants. In this view, families and their children are not citizens whose educational successes promotes civic virtue and democratic values; they are “customers” who shop around with buying power for the best product out of rational self-interest.

Education, then, is to be “consumed” according to individual tastes rather than provided for universally in accordance with our democratic ideals. What determines the success of an educational institution is competition for customers: If a school doesn’t attract customers, then like any enterprise it should go out of business.

This fall you will most likely not hear the differences on education between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney framed in these terms. Yet, in the broadest strokes, this is what is at stake in the presidential election of 2012—two very different visions of education, and two very different ways to solve the problems that the American system of education faces. One based on a principle of universality, the other based on market forces.

Ever the businessman, Mr. Romney falls squarely in the “education-as-commodity” camp. Earlier this year at a town hall in Ohio, he responded to a high school senior’s question about the troubling cost of college in typical form.

“Don’t just go to one that has the highest price,” Romney said. “Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

The message was rather straightforward and simple: Individuals should shop around in the market for the education they think they can afford, even if it means a mountain of debt. Government has little or no role to play because, for Romney, education is a commercial product, not a public good.

The quality of that education, accessibility to it, or the basic obligation we as a society have to provide individuals with those two things are utterly nonexistent except in the context of what the market will bear. You’re on your own to sink or swim, left to the forces of the market’s ethics.