America's market-based economy has successfully encouraged entrepreneurship, creativity, and commerce, and delivered a high standard of living. So it is understandable that some would consider a market-based response to overhaul an educational system turning out consistently low assessment scores in reading and mathematics. But when the economy extends into the arena of public goods and services, individual profit motive supplants the "common good."
Injecting market principles into public education through vouchers, publicly funded private-school scholarships, and publicly funded charter schools run by for-profit businesses undermines our nation's historical commitment to public education for the public good. Plus, there is no convincing evidence that competition in education improves student learning.
The profit motive erodes the common good. Public education - like roads, voting, jury duty, national security, and police and fire protection - cannot be outsourced to private entities without corrupting and undermining our social contract. That contract, in essence, says, "I will give up some of my absolute liberty in exchange for a safer, more secure life and community."
By agreeing to live by the social contract, we also agree to the government's power to enforce the law. We choose not to turn law enforcement over to the marketplace, even if a privatized police force would cost less and stimulate entrepreneurial enterprises, because the essential nature of law enforcement would be corrupted.
Similarly, public education exists for the common good. It upholds the ideal that all people can come together to learn and to live. Public schools provide an educated citizenry and workers. This is not a product that can be bought and sold. It is, however, the means by which achievement gaps are closed, and American innovation and productivity are invigorated. It is how we remain competitive in a global economy.
In a country that is increasingly diverse, we need to revitalize those institutions that strengthen our bonds of citizenry and that reinforce the social contract. Public schools are the cornerstone of American citizenry and should not be bought and sold in the interest of corporate profits. Yes, we need to fix our education system through a variety of efforts, including modifying school governance, limiting the impact of unions, being more creative in how schools operate, and providing greater choices within the public system. But the free market is not the answer.
Joseph Roy is superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District ( firstname.lastname@example.org). George White is the Iacocca professor of education and director of the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders at Lehigh University ( email@example.com).