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Groceries and Education: Too Important Not to Be Left to the Market

• Adam Peshek

As important as education is, you would have a hard time arguing that it is more important than ensuring that there is food on the table. So, if education is too important to be left to market, then surely we can’t allow evil profit motive and competition to ensure that Americans are provided with the quality, affordable food they need to live.

So let’s start treating grocery stores like public schools. After being taxed for your annual share of groceries, you would be assigned to one local, government-run store where you would be required to receive all your “free” groceries. In effect, the government would act as both the funder and vendor of the grocery industry. Your only other option would be to pay out-of-pocket at a private store, which would cost much more than it should since it competes with a government-backed monopoly. (Alternatively, you could be one of those people that grow your own food – a group the government would keep an interested, suspicious eye on.)

Since grocery stores would be funded by local property taxes, affluent areas could keep better products in stock, offer better services, and attract the best staff. Those moving to a new city would spend hours on the internet, talking to locals, and pouring over maps with realtors to figure out where the best stores are located – and take out larger mortgages for the privilege of living in these areas. Those who couldn’t afford this option would be relegated to low-quality stores with worse products where no one would want to work, let alone shop. Stores would be far more segregated than today, and “outsiders” who attempt to shop in a store they are not zoned for could face legal action, even prison.

Complaints would be filed and sent up to the bureau, but their effect would be uncertain. In the absence of ground-up accountability – choice and competition – governments would need to create elaborate systems of top-down accountability that try to capture enough reliable data to compare stores in an attempt to gauge quality. Few people would like these systems, but how else do you hold a monopoly accountable?

Programs would be created to level the playing field among low- and high-income stores, but other than the growing bureaucracy created to administer these programs, few changes would be observed. With a captive customer base that has no choice but to shop there, a store would have little incentive to change their way or experiment with new methods that inconvenience their seasoned staff, whose rock-solid government contracts keep store management ineffectual and unable to make day-to-day changes based on the needs of the store’s customers. There would be no self-checkouts, online ordering, grocery delivery, experimental shopping cart designs, discounts to move overstocked products, or any of the other features we have grown accustomed to. And plastic bags? Well, the government decided to ban them outright in their stores, so if you don’t bring your reusable bag you’re out of luck.

The government would even provide the lowest-quality stores with even more money in the hopes that this would lead to improvements.

Third parties would enter the sector to try to improve things. Maybe a group that tries to partner grocery stores with local businesses or an upstart that tries to get stores to upgrade their technology to increase efficiency and get employees to work smarter. Perhaps a nonprofit would be created that recruits top business students to spend a couple years after college working at local stores in hopes that some of their entrepreneurial spirit could infiltrate and change the culture of status quo that has been inculcated over decades.

All of these efforts, while completely appropriate and commonsense in such a situation, could never do enough to truly transform a system so highly inefficient, unnecessarily expensive, and unintentionally unequal. If these changes happened overnight, the American public would revolt. But after a few generations of this, people grow accustomed, nostalgic, and can’t imagine life without this system which ensures all citizens – no matter their background – are provided with their share of free groceries.

Unfortunately, this is how our system of education has developed over the past century.

History has shown us that the government is great at collecting money, worse at distributing it, and utterly inefficient at delivering services. The idea of school choice, at its core, was proposed to separate the government’s role as both the funder and vendor of education. This allows us to keep the public funding side of education, which ensures that everyone is provided with the resources to obtain an education, but it empowers parents to direct their child’s education.

Education funding is available to everyone. It’s government funding for a public purpose. Yet, pundits discuss school choice programs as if education funding is reserved for a small group of recipients and, since not everyone benefits from it, there should be strict accountability measures imposed upon private schools to ensure that a few are not taking advantage of the public. But by opting into a choice program, a parent is merely choosing to use the money they are already receiving in a different way. Instead of going to the monopoly, they want to try an alternative. And most times the parent is asking for significantly less funding than is provided for them in the public system.

Through private school choice, the chief form of accountability comes from giving consumers the right to “vote with their feet.” In a choice program, schools are held accountable by individual parents. Schools are not opened or closed based on arduous, year-long processes of taking input, bringing in experts, and political handwringing. If parents are not satisfied with their child’s school, they take them elsewhere. It’s as simple as that. We wouldn’t need a top-down accountability system because we are fostering bottom-up accountability.

Instead of attaching tax dollars to a building, let’s attach them to the child. Let’s create more education savings account programs that give parents the ability not only to direct their child to the school of their choice, but let’s give them ability to choose multiple educational programs and services and allow them to not only judge them based on quality, but on whether they are providing the highest bang for their buck.

It’s a simple idea and one whose time has come. Education is too important not to be left to the market.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.