The Ignored Arm of the Commons and the Invisible Hand of the Market

Education Week has posted a new report on charter school funding, the blog titled “Charter Schools’ Funding Lags, Study Finds”:

Charter school students receive about $4,000 less in per-pupil funding than their regular public school peers according to an analysis of five regions across the U.S., a new report has found.

The report, conducted by the University of Arkansas and funded by the Walton Family Foundation, compared per-pupil funding rates between charter and regular public schools in Denver, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Newark, and the District of Columbia from 2007-2011.

The Walton Family Foundation has been a major backer of school-choice, including charters and private school vouchers. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports coverage of parent empowerment issues at Education Week.)

…Many of the same researchers that conducted the Ball State University study participated in the University of Arkansas research.

What should anyone make about a report coming from the Department of Education Reform Walmart housed at the public University of Arkansas?

First, the charter school movement, good or bad, depends on the existence of public schools—a fact of the Commons often ignored.

The Invisible Hand of the Market sits at the end of the Ignored Arm of the Commons.

Try running your great new business without public streets and highways, public law enforcement, or public schools educating the vast majority of workers and consumers in the U.S.

As Bruce Baker has shown [1], the charter shuffle and its dependence on public schools must never be discounted; note this graphic:

Figure 1. The General Model

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As Kelvin Smythe notes:

The education situation is dire, western economies are struggling, with one of its manifestations being the rich and powerful acting to undermine public schools. Charter schools not being about charter schools is emblematic of that dire situation.

Charter schools and charter school reports coming from thinly veiled free market think tanks housed inside public universities are about unfairly discrediting public schools and the wider Commons as well as misrepresenting the power and importance of the free market.

The Invisible Hand of the Market can never conduct its magic without a powerful but Ignored Arm of the Commons to guide it.

[1] See also COMPARING CHARTER SCHOOL AND LOCAL PUBLIC DISTRICT FINANCIAL RESOURCES IN NEW YORK, OHIO, AND TEXAS, Baker & Wiley (2012); and FISCAL DISPARITIES AND PHILANTHROPY AMONG NEW YORK CITY CHARTER SCHOOLS, Baker & Ferris (2011)

Beyond Choice: The Invisible Hand v. Lady Justice

Free market advocates have sought a series of talking points and justifications for an equally wide array of school choice formats over the past twenty to twenty-five years, primarily because the public has been resistent to school choice plans.

One tactic common among choice advocates is to associate the Invisible Hand of the market with Lady Justice, blurring the essential nature of choice and competition as sorting mechanisms with the goal of equity among educators seeking social justice: “People in poverty deserve the same choice affluent people have,” goes the claim.

Lady Justice

American capitalism has a long history of demonizing the Commons as “government” and idealizing corporate America as the “free” market, and part of that narrative includes ignoring the place of the Commons as a foundation upon which a free market can thrive.

The Invisible Hand, however, driven by choice and competition always sorts and never attends to social justice or equity.

Take for example the facts around Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware’s broken leg during the Elite 8 round of the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament.

As David Sirota has explained, Louisville does not guarantee scholarships (if Ware’s injury renders him unable to play basketball again, he loses his scholarship) and even Ware’s medical bills may fall on his shoulders.

Yet, the Invisible Hand sees not the problem of equity and justice in Ware’s situation, but that Ware and his injury are marketable, explains Dave Zirin:

On Wednesday we learned that Adidas, in conjunction with the University of Louisville athletic department, will be selling a $24.99 t-shirt with Kevin Ware’s number 5 and the slogan “Rise to the Occasion” emblazoned across the back. His team will also be wearing warm-ups with Ware’s name, number and the slogan “All In.”…

You almost have to tip your cap: no non-profit does buccaneer profiteering quite like the NCAA. What other institution would see a tibia snap through a 20-year-old’s skin on national television and see dollar signs? In accordance with their rules aimed at preserving the sanctity of amateurism, not one dime from these shirts will go to Kevin Ware or his family. Not one dime will go toward Kevin Ware’s medical bills if his rehab ends up beneath the $90,000 deductible necessary to access the NCAA’s catastrophic injury medical coverage. Not one dime will go towards rehab he may need later in life.

This is the ethics of the market: Is there a market? And what selling price will that market bear against the cost of producing the goods?

Little concern for right or wrong occurs unless the Commons are involved.

Commons such as the legal system were necessary to end child labor [1] or worker abuse as portrayed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or American slavery—all of which were beneficial to the market.

Consider the free market police force in the science fiction allegory RoboCop, or that market-based military forces are mercenaries.

The capital-based market corrupts, but the Commons seek, preserve, and spread equity as long as they remain above capital and beyond choice.

So let’s return to the compelling “People in poverty deserve the same choice affluent people have”—to which I say, No.

People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.

And then it is upon this Commons beyond choice that the Invisible Hand may create an economy that a free people deserve.

[1] The market-based call for merit pay in education creates child labor.