Big Ideas: Discussing the Book, “Education in the Marketplace”
Our Director of Policy Jason Bedrick talks with the author of this new book
Kevin Currie-Knight, teaching associate professor at East Carolina University, discusses topics in his book, Education in the Marketplace. He unpacks school choice in relation to market libertarianism, the segregation debate and more. He profiles school choice advocates like Milton and Rose Friedman, Murray Rothbard and Myron Lieberman.
Click to listen, or read the full transcript below.
Our Podcast Transcribed
Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. Today, I am joined by Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight. He is a teaching associate professor at East Carolina University, and he is the author of the book, Education in the Marketplace, which is the subject of our conversation today.
Kevin, thank you for coming on.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Thanks for having me, Jason.
Jason Bedrick: Your book opens with a thought experiment by Murray Rothbard concerning government-run newspapers. What was this thought experiment and what point was Rothbard making?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. I like his thought experiment a lot which is why I intro the book with it. Rothbard was an economist in the 19 … I think he started working in the 1960s and ’70s. And he was trying to make a point about public education. He did a thought experiment and it goes like this: Imagine that we, in the United States, creates a government-run news service because we want everyone to consume the news and not only that, but it’s tax supported and no matter whether you like that news service you have to support this news service with your tax funds. You don’t have a choice. In addition to that, you also have to, for a certain number of hours a day, consume that news service which you get now “for free” through your tax dollars. If you want to pay for private news, you can also do that but you have to ask permission from the state to do it and the state will tell you whether you have to use the public news service or whether you’re permitted to use a private news service.
The point he was trying to make was I think most people when they hear that would have a problem with it. They would think, “Well, that sounds like North Korea,” or something like that. There’s a lot of reasons that would be a really bad thing, but he says if you think about it, that’s pretty similar to what we have in terms of our education system today where we pay tax dollars to support this government system and we can use a private system if we want, we can use private schools we want, but we have to ask the government’s permission to do it because it’s assumed that you’re going to go into the public system, and since education is mandatory most people will choose to go to the public system because their tax dollars support the public system anyway.
The reason I started with this thought experiment was I want people to get a sense for how Libertarians see education. Most people see the public education system as not terribly problematic. I think most people aren’t really concerned with school choice, don’t really have a problem with it but if you think about it in terms of what would this look like if it were a government and news service? I think most people would realize, “OK. That’s why the Libertarian perspective sees a problem with the idea of a government-supported education system or news service or something like that.” It’s a fun experiment to begin to look with.
Jason Bedrick: Right. All of the thinkers that you profile in your book—and I should mention from the start that what your book does is it profiles a variety of different thinkers, I would say mostly in the 20th century. We’re thinking through what the role of government should be in education. All of the ones profiled in your book are broadly sympathetic to Rothbard’s critique of government-run education although they do differ considerably in their proposed alternatives. Nevertheless, you describe all of them as market Libertarians. What do you mean by market libertarian?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. It’s most people, I think, who are within the Libertarian perspective already in terms of supporting free markets we just say the word Libertarian. The problem is that in education the word Libertarian can mean two different things. It can mean either someone who supports, let’s say free-market and liberty in the marketplace or it can mean someone who supports the education that gives students freedom. It’s not atypical to see folks within the field of education. For instance say that Maria Montessori is a Libertarian. Even though she didn’t really have any sensible support for like markets, it was more that she wanted an education system that would support the liberty of students.
It was hard to figure out what term to use because if education folks are reading this book and they hear the word Libertarian, they’re not going to really know which of the two I’m speaking towards. When I say market libertarians, I mean libertarians in the sense who are pro-market because they want people to be able to choose from a variety of services in the marketplace.
Jason Bedrick: That makes sense because, I mean, if you think of Rousseau and his thought experiment. I think it was Emile, right? Emile is running through the forest and learning that way outside of a traditional classroom. In that sense, he might be considered a Libertarian when it comes to education but certainly the form of government that he proposed was not a Libertarian one.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Right. Right.
Jason Bedrick: Right. Now many, although not all of the market Libertarians that you profile in your book are proponents or were proponents of school choice policies like school vouchers or education savings accounts in which the government subsidizes private education either directly or through public funds or indirectly through tax credits, but is every proponent of school choice a market Libertarian?
Kevin Currie-Knight: That’s a great question. Actually one of the later chapters in my book, which I thought I created this chapter while I was working on the book, is a chapter that profiles school choice advocates who were not particularly sympathetic towards pro-market Libertarian ideas. One of the big ones that folks within the school choice movement might be familiar with is Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman who were two law professors who wrote a book in, I think, late ’70s called Education by Choice. They were not particularly pro-market guys. They were coming from a centrist-Democrat position, made a lot of beefs actually with Milton Friedman who was a market Libertarian.
Jason Bedrick: Actually famously, they had a dispute with him over … They had competing voucher proposals—
Kevin Currie-Knight: That’s right.
Jason Bedrick: … on the ballot in California.
Kevin Currie-Knight: That’s right. Sugarman and Coons created this system that allowed for probably more government intervention than many Libertarians would be comfortable with. For instance their proposal, because it was so focused on racial and socio-economic equity, their proposal was like, “We don’t really have a problem paying more and voucher money to students that schools might not readily accept such as those with more significant disabilities or those that are a racial category that schools might not see as desirable or might see as harder to educate,” or whatever that is whereas Friedman said, “No. Government should pay an equal amount to everyone.”
Another thing that I think Sugarman and Coons were more comfortable with was the idea of government playing an active role in supporting and creating public schools when necessary. They were very specific that one of the things they didn’t like about some of the Libertarian plans were that Libertarian plans wanted to abolish public schools, generally speaking. I think Friedman wasn’t quite there, but he was pretty close. Whereas they said, “No, we want public schools to be able to compete with private schools. We just want people to be able to get their money and pay it towards private schools if that’s what they would choose to do.” They were definitely not market Libertarians.
Another one in the book, one of my favorites that I wrote about, was John Holt who most people who know his name would know him as a proponent of home schooling and, what’s now called unschooling. Holt really liked the idea of market plans in education like voucher plans but his motivation was not any sort of idea that markets are preferable. His real thought was he wanted to break what he saw as a cultural stranglehold that traditional conventional schooling has in the United States and elsewhere, and he reasoned that, “Well, if people are allowed to choose and take their money where they’d like maybe that stranglehold can loosen a bit and maybe we can see more radical alternatives come about like free schools or democratic schools or something like that.”
Yeah. The long answer to your question is that no, being school choice probably doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re a market libertarian. I would say that market Libertarians are a subclass of school choice components.
Jason Bedrick: Before we get back to market libertarianism, what were the arguments for school choice among some of the thinkers on the political Left? For example, you mentioned Ted Sizer.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Oh, yeah. This is interesting because especially recently people like Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten have tried to link school choice to a segregationist agenda. One of the things that I learned and really began to appreciate in my research is that especially on the left, it was actually almost the opposite. Their concern was that the public system was segregating so a lot of these folks like Ted Sizer and Coons and Sugarman and even John Holt were writing years after Brown v. Board of Education and we that Brown had a big problem being implemented. A lot of states didn’t want to implement it, a lot of districts didn’t want to implement it so they essentially didn’t really implement it. They took half measures.
What Coons and Sugarman and Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier when she did support school choice, wanted to do was use private schools and markets to give the public schools not only competition but to make it so that the poor had the school choice that the rich already frankly enjoyed, because the rich folks can move from one area to the next if they want to go to another school. Or they can pay the tuition for private schools whereas poor kids and disproportionately a minority kids at that point, really didn’t have that option. They really wanted to open up that option and markets and school choice was the way to hopefully begin to integrate and even nudge the public schools to integrate. That was really their objective.
Another objective that especially Ted Sizer had and Deborah Meier had was they wanted schools to be autonomous. One of the big problems I think everyone who’s a proponent of school choice recognizes about the public schools is it’s very bureaucratic and top-heavy so schools really don’t have a lot of individual autonomy. I know that Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier really hopes that if you opened up markets, you could open up markets to schools that are autonomous like small private schools could open where the authority for the school lay within that school not at some far-off district office.
Jason Bedrick: Yeah. It’s interesting to note and I think it’s actually very important to note today, as you do in your book, that’s the segregation debate and the school choice debates you had people on both sides of each debate, right?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Right.
Jason Bedrick: You had people, certainly, who were trying to use vouchers as a way to … After the schools were integrated they’ll say, “Well, we’ll just try to implement this voucher program so that we can have White private schools.” But there were also people who were Pro-segregation who are trying to prevent the vouchers because they were worried that that was actually going to lead to more integration. I think they actually had reason to worry about that because even while all the public schools were segregated, there were private schools, in particular Catholic but not exclusively Catholic I mean think of the Julius Rosenwald schools and others that were integrated even when the public schools were all segregated.
It’s a part of our history, I think, that is underappreciated and not as well-known as it really should be that there were many of these people that were using the market in order to integrate schools faster than the government was able to do it.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. One of the things that struck me in researching this book and researching school choice proponents who were libertarian and school choice proponents who are not really market libertarian is that vouchers in school choice, these are tools. They don’t come with an intent attached to them. We add the intent. Some people are going to try to design voucher systems or school choice systems that segregate and other people are going to try to design programs that integrate.
If you look at Coons and Sugarman’s proposal for instance, they took great steps to make sure that schools would integrate. They went so far as to say that segregationist criteria for selecting students should be outlawed. It really depends on how you design the program whether it results in a more segregationist effect or whether it results in a more integrationist effect.
Jason Bedrick: It’s interesting, too. I’d say most of the market libertarians either take as a principle or at least on consequentialist grounds strongly believe in freedom whereas the pro-school choice proponents on the left, their main concern really was equality but it led them to the same place in terms of policy or something close to it.
Kevin Currie-Knight: I would say I think that Sizer and Coons and Sugarman would agree with this depiction. I think they believe that freedom was the route to equality, that freedom was the best route to get there. If you could design a system that allowed freedom within certain constraints, that would be the better way to get to equality than a state compulsory system.
Jason Bedrick: Now turning back to the market libertarians that your book spends the most time analyzing, I know that your book goes roughly in chronological order. But I’d actually like to start with Milton Friedman, not just because he was the founder of the organization that I work for. EdChoice used to be the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, but also because he and his wife Rose were probably the greatest popularizers of the idea of school vouchers in the late 20th century. The idea did not originate with them. We can actually trace it all the way back. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in the 1860s was talking about this. Even Thomas Paine was promoting an idea like this in the late 1700s, but Friedman definitely popularized it. What was his argument for school vouchers?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah, this is interesting because one of the things I try to do in my book is everyone who I profile in the book was for markets but they all had their own rationales for why they thought that markets and education were appropriate somewhere utilitarian, somewhere natural rights based arguments, others were purely economic arguments.
Milton Friedman was pretty well a utilitarian in terms of his outlook. He was an economist and he wanted to make sure that we crafted policy that would provide the best options for the greatest number of people, roughly. I don’t think he said it like that but he was definitely a consequentialist if not some sort of utilitarian in that way. For him, it wasn’t so much a principled objection against government like it was for Rothbard. For Rothbard government’s theft therefore government shouldn’t be in education because we don’t want theft and moral badness in education. Friedman didn’t really have those qualms. His argument was more, “Government doesn’t often do the job as well as private industry can do the job.”
In all sorts of areas of life, we see that competing firms, rival firms do better. The competitive process means that companies improve, costs go down, quality goes up overtime and essentially… He even said that what he did in his article on education, I think it was called, “The Role of Government in Education,” he said, “What I basically did was I applied economic arguments I had used elsewhere to the field of education.” Education wasn’t a field that he had particularly wanted to get involved in at first. It was just, he wrote this article because he said, “Well, these arguments have appeared elsewhere for markets. I think they should also apply the education so let me look and see if they do,” and he found that they did.
Really, one of his later, I think, newspaper articles that he wrote was something to the effect of, “Let’s treat schools like we treat grocery stores.” It, really for him, that’s kind of what it was. For the same reasons that markets are valuable in the grocery industry, markets are also valuable in the education industry and education is not a different service towards which these market rules don’t apply.
Jason Bedrick: Yeah. You often hear people say, “Well, schools aren’t McDonald’s. Education is different.” But it often amounts to a matter … Just special pleading. They can’t articulate really how it’s different. They’ll say it’s a public good and of course they don’t mean it the same way an economist means.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Right. Right. Yeah, I think if you made that argument for Milton Friedman he would say, “No, education is not a public good. It’s excludable and its rival risk.”
Jason Bedrick: Yes, but even in—
Kevin Currie-Knight: It’s not a public good, it’s a private good.
Jason Bedrick: Yes, exactly. But even in the colloquial sense of public good, meaning that well, this benefits the public. That’s the core of his argument is that, yes, there are these neighborhood effects. There are spillover effects but the private school system does it better therefore we should favor it not just in terms of, as you mentioned, quality and efficiency but also that the market provides a greater diversity right of educational options than government-run system would.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. That was one of the things Friedman did very explicitly and he was one of the first, at least in the field of education, to do this explicitly. He detached the funding role that government might have from the production role that government might have. He definitely agreed to your point that yes, there are neighborhood effects or what he called neighborhood effects, other economists might know them as externalities. There are positive externalities to a good education but that doesn’t mean government has to produce education. It only means that, if anything, government has to fund education and make sure that everyone can receive a certain minimal amount of education but from there, he said yeah, markets will produce the best outcomes for the dollars spent than let’s say a public system would.
Yeah, just because government may have a role to play in funding education, which he was fully onboard with, he did not think that therefore that meant that government had to produce education. He really distinguished between the two in ways that others before him hadn’t really done as explicitly.
Jason Bedrick: You’ll see that some of the mainstream who we think of as libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute or The Reason Foundation are very much in favor of school vouchers and varieties on the voucher like tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts, but there were some libertarians, for example Rothbard, who were not fans of the voucher idea. Indeed, Rothbard may have been Friedman’s fiercest critic. What concerned Rothbard about school vouchers and what did he proposed instead?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Oh, it’s funny. Milton Friedman got it from both sides. He got it from Coons and Sugarman for not being supporting government intervention enough and he got it from Rothbard for supporting it too much. Yeah, Rothbard was … Well, he was a hardline anarchist, an anarcho-capitalist or a market anarchist, I guess you would say. For Rothbard really start with the idea that government is institutionalized theft. Government functions by taking people’s money and if you don’t give your money, bad things will happen to you.
Jason Bedrick: Right. If a highway robber were to come, put a gun against your head and say, “Give me $1000,” and then he gives that $1000 in the form of a scholarship to a poor kid you would still say it was immoral. Then Rothbard argues, “Just because 50 percent plus one of your neighbors voted to put a gun against your head and take your money, doesn’t make this a moral action.”
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. For Rothbard it’s not a stretch to say that government had no more moral authority than like a street gang has. He just didn’t really see that there was a difference. The government just convinced everyone that they were legitimate. But Rothbard also marries that with an Austrian economist tradition in the … Ludwig von Mises tradition where one of the bad things about government is they will take and spend money in a way that the market wouldn’t have spent that money already so they, in some ways, produce malinvestment. They spend money where it wouldn’t be what you’d say it is most highly valued use.
If you add those two together, it’s really easy to see why Rothbard thought that we really don’t want government involved in education first of all, because there’s a moral problem there but second of all, because government will distort whatever market could develop within education. I think Rothbard believed that private charity and private initiative would be enough to make sure that everyone was roughly educated.
There’s some debate on that. Historically, the record is the United States and the colonies before it were pretty well-educated without a whole lot of government intervention but when we talk about how well-educated they were, they didn’t use our standards of measurement. It was a lot lower of a standard of measurement. There is some legitimate debate on whether industry and charity would be enough.
He also criticized Friedman on the idea that if you allow government to fund education, you also, by effect, give government the authority to accredit education simply because whoever’s paying for a particular service in some ways has the right to check to see if that’s a legitimate service, “I only want my money to be going to legitimate schools that I endorse because it’s my money.” His concern was that Friedman was letting in a lot more government intervention simply by allowing them to fund schools. You’re going to open up government accreditation which now likely means you’re going to have government dictating here’s the kind of curriculum private schools could have. At that point, at least as far as Rothbard was concerned, you have a lot more interference than is justified. He just wanted to keep government and state and education separate.
Jason Bedrick: Another anarchist that you profile in your book and the earliest figure that your profile is Albert Jay Nock who lived in 1870 until 1945.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah.
Jason Bedrick: He was a very strong critic of government-run education but he was also skeptical that the market could provide education well either. What were his concerns and what were his proposed alternatives?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Sure. For those who don’t know who Nock is, Nock was a newspaper journalist and he wrote several books so he made his living as an author basically. He wrote for magazines like The Freeman and he was I guess, what you might call a paleo conservative although I think in retrospect, we can call him a libertarian. I started with him almost by accident. When I was starting to write this book, I made a list of all the figures, Libertarians figures, who wrote on education because I figured, “OK. I’ll need a list of people to go to.” Albert Jay Nock has a reputation as a libertarian and he actually wrote a book on education called The Theory of Education in the United States. I figured, “OK. This will be great. I’ll start with him.”
The more I read, the more I realized that as anti-government as he was and he was certainly up there in terms of his disdain for government and the state, he was in some ways equally suspicious that a market could provide education. Here’s how his argument ran.
In terms of being against the state, he relied a lot on the sociological works of Franz Oppenheimer, a sociologist who wrote a book called The State. For Oppenheimer there’s two and only two methods of exchange. There’s voluntary exchange and there’s forcible exchange. Markets use voluntary exchange and government use only forcible exchange. They extract money. They extract wealth. They do what they want to do they don’t have to ask people’s permission.
Nock was very much against that almost for the same reasons Rothbard later was against the state but Albert Jay Nock was also, I guess, in present terms we’d call him an elitist. He believes that only a certain kind of person, a certain kind of superior person was capable of being truly educated so everyone is capable of being trained. He thought that most people can get training to do something, like to do some vocational thing or whatever. Training isn’t really a problem. Education, he thought, and by that he meant reading the great books and thinking big ideas and doing intellectual work and stuff like that, he thought that that was a special group of people that can do that and education, at least the kind of education he wanted to see, was a really hard work. It was something that you had to work very hard at. Reading the great books and thinking big ideas is a difficult endeavor and not everyone’s going to be up for the challenge.
As pessimistic as he was that the state could offer true education, he was very pessimistic that markets could offer true education because if most people had their way, Nock thought they would prefer the cheap and easy. They would prefer to get a degree with as little amount of work as possible. They would prefer to do less work than more work and the market would respond to that consumer demand and they would give them to cheap and easy.
He was pessimistic on all counts. He didn’t really trust that the state could give a good education, didn’t really even trust that they could train people very well but he really didn’t think either that markets could actually create a good educational service. He said several times, if markets didn’t reduce, by some miracle, a school that truly educated people, it would probably shut its doors after a few years because so few people would want that sort of education.
Jason Bedrick: In that view, he’s quite similar to a number of the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson is known for starting the University of Virginia, of course, but at the time they were talking about fewer than one in a thousand kids that were going to be worthy of going to this university and attaining a higher education.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. Jefferson’s plan, as I recall, was everyone is entitled to a certain number of years of free education paid for by the state of Virginia but basically, every year you move on. We skim the cream from the top and they move on and everyone else can go on if they want but they’ll have to pay for it. It’s really the cream that will get that free education and by the time you get to the university system, you’re going to have a very small handful of ultra-capable people who are consuming the education there.
Jason Bedrick: Now, Nock as you mentioned was quite skeptical not only of the government but also the market when it came to education. One of his students, you’ll have to help me on the pronunciation, Frank Chodorov?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Chodorov.
Jason Bedrick: It is Chodorov.
Kevin Currie-Knight: I heard it’s Chodorov, Chodorov. I heard it a whole bunch of ways so I don’t think my guess would be a whole lot better than yours.
Jason Bedrick: Right. Chodorov was somewhat more optimistic about the prospects of private education and a market for education although he wasn’t as supportive of government intervention in the form of a subsidy as Friedman would later be, neither did he take Rothbard’s laissez-faire approach. He had a middle ground. Why did he prefer this middle ground to either direct government subsidies or complete non-intervention ?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Right. Chodorov was very blatant in some of his essays that he was as an anarchist like Nock was. He shared all of Nock’s views on government in terms of being coercive rather than voluntary. For Nock the goal would be a system where there’s no government intervention at all. Everyone can afford education on their own or with charity or something like that or with donations whatever that is but really, he said, “We have a public system. It’s too far to go between the public system we have and a completely private system. What we need to do is figure out a way for government to subsidize education for folks who really, really can’t afford that education and stay away as much as possible from government intervening any more than that.”
He really supported a tax-credit system essentially that allowed people to deduct tuition from their tax and I’m trying to think back to whether that even extended to a negative income tax, I don’t think he brought that up that possibility but the idea would be that whatever you pay in tuition would be taxed free. He thought that alleviating a burden like that would open up education to a lot more folks.
Jason Bedrick: Now you mentioned Ayn Rand the famous or perhaps infamous novelist and objectivist philosopher, had relatively similar views at least in terms of policy but she gets there of at a bit of a different way. What was Ayn Rand about and what does Isabel Patterson have to do with her?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Oh, yeah, right. Ayn Rand when she came to the United States, this is several years after she came to the States, she had encountered a journalist named Isabel Patterson and I’d have to look back at the book that Patterson wrote for several pretty famous outlets. Patterson and Rand became pretty good friends.
Ayn Rand was obviously pro-market, pro-capitalist. So is Patterson. Patterson ended up writing a book called The God of The Machine where she explained society and market formations as this machine that where each part kind of performs a function but it doesn’t have to be a centralized thing. The more centralized it is, the more interference there is in each part performing its function. Now Patterson and Rand also shared a passion for individualism. They really wanted an education system that was good for liberty, that was good for perpetuating liberal individualist values and Patterson wrote a chapter in her book, God of The Machine, called, “Our Japanized Education System” where she talked about what she saw as the dangers or pitfalls of what would then be known as progressive education. She had in mind like doing it and progressive education.
She said this thing is really collectivist. It teaches collectivist values. It teaches that everyone is, I guess, subordinated to the group. It doesn’t teach people to think individually. It doesn’t teach people to act individually and this is a state mouthpiece. This is a way for the state to indoctrinate people into these collectivist values. Rand when she ended up writing some essays, she wrote I think two essays on education, she ended up saying many is the same things in a very different way. For Rand, it wasn’t only in a danger of the state providing education it was a danger of the state will provide a sort of education that is collectivist ostensibly I guess because the state wants collectivists, because collectivists make good supporters of the state et cetera.
Rand also, I guess, accompanied all of that by a very strong support for natural rights and she believes that one of the natural rights that people had was to educate their own children like the family in some sense as sacrosanct. The state shouldn’t come between you and your children which was also a view supported Chodorov and Albert Jay Nock before so it definitely wasn’t a view that was original with her or unique to her.
It was a natural rights argument also with the argument that the state is just almost inherently, by its nature, going to create very collectivist forms of education that teach a very collectivist doctrine.
Jason Bedrick: Now one of the most fascinating figures that you profile in the book, at least in my view, was a former Teacher’s Union negotiator who knew the government school system more intimately than nearly anyone … Certainly, more than anybody else that’s profiled in the book. Who was Myron Lieberman and what did he contribute to the conversation about government schooling and school choice?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. If people who are supporters of school choice don’t know Myron Lieberman’s name, they should definitely look him up. He’s got some great books. He’s done some great work.
Myron Lieberman, his most famous book I believe was Public Education: An Autopsy which I believe was published some point in the [1960s]. Myron Lieberman is, as you mentioned, a former labor negotiator. He started his life in 1940’s as a public schoolteacher. He rose in the ranks, became, at some point, a labor negotiator working on behalf of brokering deals between states and unions so he worked in several different states. One of the things he started to realize, by his own account, was that there were often terms in these contracts that were really good for teachers but at the expense of being good for consumers. Things about the limitations on the number of hours one can work, the times in which the school doors have to close things like that. He noticed that unions are doing their job in some sense and protecting teachers and that’s a legitimate thing to look out for but oftentimes it was at the expense of improving educational quality, creating situations where students benefit things like that.
He started looking into economic analyses of Teachers Union and why is it that Teachers Union are often at odds with the consumers of their service. He came across public choice research. James Buchanan is, I think, the name that most people know in the public choice school, that he came across works by Mancur Olson and other folks explaining why it is that unions often have disproportionate voice in any field that they’re in and the sometimes deleterious effects that that can have. He started writing about education and he became more and more convinced when talking to people that markets and education would help to break up some of the, I guess, the stronghold that not only unions but bureaucracies have in education just like they have another field. If you decentralize the space, you will limit the amount of influence that, let’s say, Teacher’s Unions or bureaucracies have.
He supported not only a private school system but he ended up supporting very explicitly the presence of for-profit schools in that equation which is interesting because not a lot of market libertarians have really gone there. I think people like Friedman were open to for-profit schools being in the market but whether it was a matter of strategy or something like that, they always kept very quiet on, “OK. Well, let’s not clamor too much about for-profits versus nonprofits.” If anything, I think, Milton Friedman looked at them as functionally the same; nonprofits, for-profits it’s all pretty similar.
For Myron Lieberman one of his big concerns and one of the things he thought for-profit schools could do that nonprofits couldn’t is they would be able to spend and they would be incentive to spend a lot of money on things like research and development, a lot of money on things like advertisement and they would also scale a lot better than nonprofits would. If you can make a profit, you have a lot more money to reinvest and a lot more incentive to scale your service in a way that nonprofits don’t always have.
Jason Bedrick: If you were to do another version of this book, a second edition, I would recommend adding Andrew Coulson.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Jason Bedrick: Dearly departed of the Cato Institute. He also—
Kevin Currie-Knight: Sure.
Jason Bedrick: … first of all, was a critic of the voucher and very much in favor of tax credit scholarships because of his concern about government intervention but also came to the conclusion like Lieberman, Lieberman certainly was a major influence on Coulson, that for-profit schools would be necessary in order to bring quality education to scale.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah.
Jason Bedrick: His concern was that a lot of the private schools that we have in the current system are happy just being their small little community and have no real incentive to scale. He says, “Look, there should be 10 Harvards, not just one.” Right?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Right.
Jason Bedrick: But there’s no incentive. If you’re an elite institution, your incentive is to remain small. He wanted a system where there was a strong incentive to serve as many people as possible therefore you need that profit motive.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. I should note also one of my favorite things about Myron Lieberman is that he was also very vocal in his somewhat opposition to charter schools. I don’t think he was opposed to charter schools. I think he recognized that some choice is better than no choice but his warning especially towards the end of his life when charters were just starting to gain steam. His word of caution was charters are not quite market driven. They have some little small aspects of markets but primarily they’re still public schools. Charters will probably likely not do as well as advertised because they don’t have the market forces but they’re just market enough that people, I guess, subsequently like Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten people like that, have been able to say, “See? Charters don’t work that well. See what happens when you have markets in education?”
Lieberman was very concerned that that would happen and he was in some ways, prescient that that would happen because I think charters have supplied Ravitch and some other folks with a lot of ammunition that they can try to use towards charter schools and really towards the market system in general.
Jason Bedrick: Or even for that matter heavily regulated voucher programs.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Right. Right.
Jason Bedrick: That ended up not really living up to their promise but were highly constrained.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah.
Jason Bedrick: On Lieberman, one of the interesting things is that he comes at it from a different direction than everyone else in that you’ve got Rothbard and Albert Jay Nock and others that they’re coming at it from a, this is a matter of principle. Ayn Rand as well, right? These are natural rights.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Right.
Jason Bedrick: Even Friedman is saying … He’s coming at it from a more, like you said, consequentialist or utilitarian economic perspective but he’s saying, “I see in all these other fields that I’m very familiar with that it works best this way and I’m taking what I’ve learned over here and I’m now going to apply it to education.”
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah, that’s right.
Jason Bedrick: The only one in your book that starts from the education system and says, “Hey, something is not working here. I got to figure out and what the problem is.” Then he comes to the market that way as opposed to starting at the market and applying it to education or starting from first principles, he starts with a problem that he’s facing intimately and then works his way out of the problem by figuring out that markets are actually the solution.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah, it’s interesting. He really, like I said, discovered the public choice economist because he was thinking through this problem. He says, “Unions are doing certain things that they’re supposed to do for teachers but it’s not really translating into what the gains for students. Why is it that that they’re opposed and why is it that in all of these disputes, labor unions have a lot of power and teachers unions have a lot of power?” It was really him thinking through that issue; why is it that the unions have so much power and why is it that there’s no real incentive for teachers unions to really keep the consumer in mind? That’s what led him to the economics. He was very honest and very nonpartisan about, “This is where I ended up. I wasn’t seeking this goal. This is where I ended up.”
Jason Bedrick: Now over the last century, we’ve seen a variety of different flavors of market libertarianism and certainly these debates are continuing today. Which of these thinkers or which flavor of market libertarianism do you think is probably the most prominent today?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Well, I certainly think that Friedman just in terms of his scope and influence has had probably disproportionately the largest effect. As far as what forms of school choice or market approach to education is going to gain the most steam, I’m wondering if it’s the one that none of the figures in my book really foresaw which is the education savings account. A few people hinted at that sort of possibility but I think education savings accounts might end up being the one that a lot of folks just in the book, because it was 20th century, didn’t really quite foresee happening.
My concern with voucher programs and even charter programs let alone an entirely private system is that in order for that to work in some sense, the state has to allow it to work. I just don’t know if states are prepared on any large scale to do that. We’ve seen a voucher statewide voucher system passed in Nevada which is yet to get funding, I guess, because the government really hasn’t committed towards funding it.
Jason Bedrick: Actually, they just repealed it. I know that was BSA.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah, right. The one in Arizona, of course, the universal education savings account system there has been under quite a bit of attack and was repealed.
Jason Bedrick: Get partially repealed. The one in Arizona is still functioning just the expansion was rolled back. In Nevada, it was passed. So far it’s the only state and as we’re recording this in mid-June, the repeal hasn’t been signed and it’s going to be subject to constitutional challenge for a variety of reasons but it’s the only program that’s ever been legislatively repealed but there were zero students using it because, just a brief history here, after it was passed there was a constitutional challenge. It survived the challenge but the court said it was not properly funded. The legislature changed hands before they had an opportunity to fund it so it’s just been a program on the books for a few years without any funding. It’s easy to repeal a program if there’s no kids that you actually have to rip a scholarship away from.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. I think that Friedman and Lieberman especially because they were writing towards the later stages of the 20th century so they saw some of these programs gained steam but then they also saw some of the burgeoning reaction to these programs. I think they both … I don’t want to say they ended on a pessimistic note because I don’t think Friedman did but they both realized that there were strong economic and political reasons why the inertia was against choice movements. Friedman would talk about the very limited voucher programs in Alum Rock and I think he saw the one in Milwaukee come about.
The problems that he saw when these things either shut down or never really expanded was that you’re working largely against both a bureaucracy and possibly a Teacher’s Union, et cetera, that stand to benefit politically and financially from keeping the current system in place and doing as well as possible. As long as you see private schools through voucher system being a threat to those programs, the existing public school programs, it’s going to be a very uphill battle.
Jason Bedrick: Yeah. Though I should note that although he didn’t call it an education savings account, in an interview just a few years before he died in the early 2000s with Education Next, Friedman did refer to a partial voucher. He said something the effective of, “Why does a voucher have to go to a kid to go to a particular school?” Maybe he’s going to get math instruction from one education provider, he’s going to get language instruction from another education, provider science from a third so they should have partial vouchers that students or families can use at a variety of different providers.
That’s essentially… As very prescient definitely was the forerunner to what we now call the education savings account.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah. I think Theodore Sizer, one of the non-libertarians sub chapters of my book, he had alluded to something similar because for Sizer it was always key for educators to realize that schools are only one place that people get education. They get education a whole lot of other places and the government needs to, in some ways, open up educational funding to support all of these places that people might go and receive education. If that means that you get instruction here for one thing and instruction there for another thing, there should be a way to do that but he never really formalized that into a proposal.
One of the figures I didn’t get a chance to really write about in my book because the focus is not on the U.S. is Ivan Illich who was, I think Russian theorist of education. He’s most famous for the book Deschooling Society. He wrote in there and some other places of what he called a edu-credits. When he describes them, they’re very much education savings accounts. The government will pay you in some kind of … He didn’t use the term credit card but it was something like that and you would deduct funds wherever you went as long as you could show that it was for an educational purpose and that was the way you would support that. He, definitely, was a visionary in terms of for seeing something like ESAs.
Jason Bedrick: Friedman has probably been the most successful, as you had mentioned, in terms of getting his ideas put into practice. Certainly, all of them are fighting from a minority position. There’s still about 80 percent of students that are going a district school, another almost 10 going to charter schools which are a form of public school, so the school choice programs are still very small. But gaining steam, they are certainly increasing and yet the critique of Rothbard and of Albert Jay Nock still remains. As you noted even in their later lives, Friedman and Myron Lieberman were concerned about the power of the forces arrayed against school choice and how, not only they might block school choice, but they might undermine school choice by over regulating it.
How do we strike the right balance between government intervention to the extent it’s necessary to subsidize education on the one hand but government intervention interfering with how schools operates and maybe getting too much power over the private sector on the other?
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah, that’s kind of like the golden question. I feel like that ends up being the theme of the book so maybe really, other than Murray Rothbard who’s really as ideologically pure, we need to keep a state out of education in all aspects. Everyone else in the book is struggling with this question of, “OK. Well, we may need the government for something whether it’s funding or whether it’s ensuring that schools are all of a certain quality or whatever it is, but how do we make it so that government can’t overstep that particular boundary ?”
One of the criticisms that I thought was really interesting was Rothbard’s criticism of Friedman which was that, “Look, if you allow the government to pay for education for people, if you allow them to provide vouchers, in some sense you now are giving them permission to accredit schools because they’re paying for the schools so they now have the right to figure out what schools are acceptable to spend money at. If you do that in some sense, you now have government, at least indirectly, potentially even dictating curricular boundaries and that’s just really difficult.”
I don’t know if I have an answer for that because everyone seems to draw the line differently. I think Myron Lieberman is probably the most permissive. He wants to allow government even the ability to collect and house data so that consumers can go to this one clearinghouse and make a wise choice based on all this data but even that it’s going to be difficult because that gives government, in some ways, an indirect freedom to say, “Well, here’s the curricular standards that you need to have and here’s what we’re measuring so every school needs to measure these same things.”
I really think that with any intervention you have there’s always going to be a trade-off. If you need government to do a particular thing, you have to figure out what you’re willing to potentially give up for that. The less government intervention you have, the more pluralistic the marketplace might be but of course, the downside might be that fewer people get educational funding, maybe the very poor will no longer be able to afford education and we don’t want that but when we have government funding, the very poor for their education now it gives the government permission to clamp in down a little bit on the diversity of schools. I guess it’s a really long way to say that I’m really not sure there’s an answer. I think every decision you make is going to come with just a trade-off.
Jason Bedrick: It certainly will and I can say that there are some organizations including EdChoice that have been working in ESA systems create an online platform where parents can get a variety of information about the effectiveness of the different education providers they’re looking for combined with user reviews.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Yeah.
Jason Bedrick: So, sort of like the Amazon of education. We know that the user reviews on Amazon and stuff they can be games but so can U.S. News and World Report is games, government rating systems are games. We don’t have utopia as an option. The question is among the available options which one is the most likely to produce best results. Some combination of some basic metrics combined with user reviews might be the best that we can really hope for but certainly, we’ll have to continue muddling our way through.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Sure.
Jason Bedrick: Now which, if any, of the market libertarian critiques in your book, critiques of government schooling I should say, do you find the most salient?
Kevin Currie-Knight: As strange as it is, the more I thought about Albert Jay Nock’s criticism, I don’t share his elitism. I don’t share the idea that education is only something for a minority of people. It might turn out that way but you can’t possibly know who those people are so you might as well make sure that you can give it to everyone. But his criticism was interesting in that if you allow education to be in the marketplace, as long as the market satisfies consumer demand then if consumers demand the least amount of work for the most credential, let’s say, it’s not inconceivable and maybe possible or likely that a lot of people will go for that education and the market will offer it. I don’t know if we can say this all the way but I think in higher education, we’ve probably seen some glimpse of that. We’ve seen kind of a softening of academic requirements over time for a degree program and it may be because people, as consumers, don’t want to go into a situation where they have to work harder than they need to to get a degree.
I’m not quite sold on the criticism. I think there’s reasons why I don’t think that criticism will necessarily come to pass in a private system but it’s an interesting dilemma to think about.
Jason Bedrick: Is there anything else you want to add about your book or related topics?
Kevin Currie-Knight: No. I think we’ve covered everything. It’s a really fun book to write. It’s really interesting to see a diverse array of defenses of markets and education and why people defend markets and education and contrary to some of the critics of vouchers and school choice that try to tie it almost exclusively as segregation, a lot of the folks in this book had very, very, very different aims for markets and education.
Jason Bedrick: Well, certainly interesting to read and I would highly recommend it to anyone but especially those who are interested in the intellectual history of educational choice, this is a must read book. Thank you very much for writing it and for coming on the podcast.
Kevin Currie-Knight: Cool. Thanks for having me.
Jason Bedrick: My guest today has been Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight. He is a teaching associate professor at East Carolina University. Again, his book is Education in the Marketplace.
Thank you for listening to EdChoice Chats. Don’t forget you can subscribe on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. You can follow us on social media @edchoice and sign up for our email on our website, edchoice.org. Catch you next time.