Here's a little detail that's caused me to say "huh" more than a few times since Mr. Reagan was elected -- a detail missing even from the yakyak of free market economy wonks: business has no social responsibilities. That's why it's difficult to run government, and school districts, like a business.
Oh, and here's further proof that I don't write the headlines.
Trust professor Milty
Education is not a business
This spring election favored candidates who staked their public credibility to their personal experience in business – to the belief that running the schools, or city council, as a business would fix everything. This belief, and those campaign promises, left a lot of conceptual dissonance clanging around in the back seat of the bandwagon.
Look, it is always a good idea to run public institutions in a way that spends tax dollars in a business-like way, but it’s complete madness to run a school district as if it were a business. Here’s why: the shoe doesn’t fit – education is not a business.
So, while there was a lot of talk about bringing common sense business experience to running the school district, there were two problems with this: first, the School Board was already chock full of first-rate business experience – more than enough to help us navigate the current economic mess. Second, and even more discordantly, is the question of whether the school district is a business in the first place, and that’s where the definitions start to sound like your sugar-saturated 4-year-old nephew learning to drive stick.
But why isn’t education a business? Why can’t we run public institutions the same way we run businesses? Well, apart from the obvious answer – that we’d be right to question the competence of anyone who wants to run the local schools the way Goldman-Sachs ran things on Wall Street, say – there is an even more fundamental answer that has to do with the difference between businesses and public institutions.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous dictum (which he borrowed from the ancient Greeks, by the way) applies here: Form follows function. Consider then the difference between the function of a school district and the function of a business.
And let’s get it from the horse’s mouth: Professor Milton Friedman, a favorite among Washington County’s pro-cuts clique, has written compellingly about the function of business. Business, Friedman argues, has a single function: to make a profit. Anything beyond this flies at cross-purposes with the very definition of what a business is supposed to do.
In a famous article for The New York Times Magazine (“The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” Sept. 13, 1970 – still a standard in business ethics courses) he expands on this definition to attack what he saw as a grave threat to American capitalism – the idea that businesses should be “socially responsible.” Friedman writes, “in my book Capitalism and Freedom, I have called it (that is, social responsibility) a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” in a free society, and have said that in such a society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
Business then, by definition, has no social responsibilities; in fact, any business that tries to be socially responsible would find itself at odds with its own function and, accordingly, damage its profit margins. So far, so good?
The “let’s run the schools like a business” crowd, run smack dab into their own definitions at exactly this point: the function of a school district is almost entirely about meeting social responsibilities – the responsibility to society to provide the education to enable the next generation to govern themselves, as citizens of the republic, and to achieve self-sufficiency. It is not the function of school district, to go back to Friedman, to make a profit.
Think about it. If the school district was a business, then we should expect anyone running it (as a business) to follow Uncle Milton’s advice and 1) try to make a profit and, 2) avoid social responsibility like the plague.
Ironically, this is exactly the complaint we now hear from the ultra-rights (and increasingly from some of us on the left) about Big Government – that it seems more concerned with making a profit (creating an endless glut either for itself or for its major campaign contributors) than with meeting its social responsibilities. Stranger yet, this marks off some common ground where the Tea Party and the Progressive Left meet. I say let’s have coffee and work it out. Any takers?
All of this, of course, is nonsense. The school district is not a business. It’s function is not to make a profit but to meet the social responsibilities those of us who live here have to the next generation. My best guess for the next few months is that when our newest School Board members find their ideology wrecked on the reefs of reality they will have to moderate their commitment to profit in order to meet their responsibilities to society.
As to whether our new school board members will start to push their creationist views into the curriculum... I double-dare them. I'm betting they don't have the conviction to act on their faith. We'll have to find out.
And so it goes.