A "Public Choice" Analysis of the Current System

Economics as a social science explains the behavior of consumers and producers. Both seek to satisfy their own preferences. Producers try to maximize profits. Consumers maximize their own utility, which normally includes cash income, creature comforts, and leisure time. The field of "public choice," a branch of economics, extends these basic findings to the world of politicians, voters, and interest groups.40 A brief public choice analysis explains many of the problems of the current system and points to parental choice as the solution.

Public choice analysis assumes that politicians, although they have a variety of desires, try to maximize their ability to get re-elected. They therefore pay more attention to organized interest groups, the media, and segments of the population which actively participate in politics than to the public at large. This is not to say that politicians are immoral or operate against the wills of the voters. Rather, just as retailers court those customers who have the most to spend in their stores, politicians listen to those who have the most impact on their re-election. In politics, it is the squeaky wheel and, more particularly, the well-funded, influential wheel, that gets the grease.

When this insight is applied to the current public school system, it is easy to see why "the system" as a whole has developed a resistance to competition. There is no organized lobby for parents concerned about their children’s performance.41 There are, on the other hand, a number of very organized, politically active interest groups that support the current system.42 While these organizations—public school employee unions, school board and administrator associations, intermediate school districts, urban and rural school districts—do not agree on all points, they all tend to oppose parental choice and support more money for the current system. Although it is clear that the vast majority of the individual members of these organizations also support better education for children, the vocal lobbying groups representing these individuals are concerned primarily with protecting institutional interests. Even though it is not in the best interests of parents and students, the typical politician responds to the powerful calls for more money for a system that is protected from outside competition.43

Dr. William Allen, Dean of Michigan State University’s James Madison College, analyzed Michigan’s current education system and highlighted the structural deficiencies that prevent citizens from demanding and receiving quality, cost-effective educational services. He notes that "due to the lack of market-like mechanisms," consumers must use the political process. For ordinary citizens in the political process, the costs are high and their ability to influence is limited, when compared to the highly-organized employees of the current system. 44

Thus, it is not surprising that, as the general populace has increasingly noticed the decline in overall performance, the defenders of the system do not wish to embrace the very change that would best address the problem. That change—market competition for students—provides every student a better chance to succeed, but also reduces the power, prestige, and money that accrue to the traditional public school system.

There is no organized lobby for parents concerned about their children's performance. There are, on the other hand, a number of very organized, politically active interest groups that support the current system.

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