Consider the following from an editorial in a national newspaper: ‘Educating children should not be for profit - learning has always been separate from the forces of the free market. And that's how it should stay.’ According to this editorial the issue appears to be black and white. The profit motive and learning simply do not mix. However, this statement raises more questions than it answers.
Firstly, would this newspaper still be prepared to support its claim that ‘educating children should not be for profit’ if schools run by for-profit companies could be shown to produce much better results at a lower cost – especially for the less well off? Or should these schools be permanently precluded irrespective of how they perform? Is there some objection in principle to the profit motive, even if the education of children suffers as a result of excluding it?
Secondly, the burden of proof must be placed on those who want to maintain the current restrictions on parents and the resulting government monopoly. Even if some parents would choose an inferior school rather than a superior one that was profit-making, is the newspaper suggesting parents who see the matter differently should not be able to choose a profit-making school? Is the profit motive so obnoxious that it should not be allowed to prevail for those whose priority is simply a high-quality education? Should parents not be allowed to have their own views on such matters?
Thirdly, how can this newspaper justify campaigning so passionately for freedom and a free market within the press and the media, while at the same time campaigning for the restriction of freedom and almost total government control over children’s schooling? How can freedom and a free market be so fundamentally important when it comes to the market for newspapers or children’s books, but dismissed when applied to children’s schooling?
The above quotation then goes on to state, ‘learning has always been separate from the forces of the free market’. If the forces of the free market include the freedom of parents to choose and the freedom of private providers to enter the sector, then this suggests that this newspaper believes and indeed celebrates the idea that learning has always been separate from these forces of freedom. But if freedom refers to choice, autonomy, self-determination, independence, openness and the lack of restrictions, then how can restricting these forces be a good thing?
It is important to acknowledge that even in an open and competitive education sector the anti-profit mentality will continue to exist in the minds of some parents who may choose to send their children to schools that do not make a profit. However, it is a separate and much more sinister desire of these same parents (and politicians) to force all other parents to accept this particular point of view.
Milton Friedman stated that the willingness to permit free speech to people with whom you agree is hardly evidence of devotion to the principle of free speech. Instead, the relevant test is willingness to permit free speech to people with whom you disagree. And so the relevant test of the belief in individual freedom is the willingness to oppose state intervention even when it is designed to prevent individual activity which you personally dislike or with which you disagree. This provides a useful test to all those high-minded people who oppose for-profit schools. Do they have the discipline to place their personal views to one side and recognise that the rights and responsibilities of individual parents must always come first? If they do, then they should be willing to oppose the existing restrictions which prevent profit-making companies from managing state-funded schools, despite the fact that they may personally disagree with the idea.
James B. Stanfield is the editor of The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution.