Saturday, April 10, 2010

Education is not a business.

Hi everyone,

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.

Saturday's column.

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.



Rich Kasten said...

I think a phrase from your last sentence sums up the entire argument best - even if taken a bit out of context "they will have to moderate" - not only the new members but the old as well.

Can you completely run education as a business? Of course not - by supply and demand alone, would calculus or composition classes exist? :) Can you run parts of education as a business? Absolutely - labor, etc. It is not a completely black and white, all or nothing thing here. Pointing to the having/had business experience on the Board does not ensure success. When I worked as a consultant, a common theme was that some businsess "survive inspite of themselves".

I look forward to the possible new ideas the new folks bring to the board. I know we on CFAC have made suggestions and recommendations to the District and Board on things they have not thought of. As long as the dialog is open on both sides, there is no downside.

Finally, I hope this will put an end to the constant drumbeat by you and others about the creaton vs. evolution non-issue. With all the budget items addressing the District, there will be little or no time even if that was on a person's agenda. All this ridiculous daring by you, Obama, etc. is just petty playground banter and solves nothing.

Mpeterson said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

I'm hopeful that they will not intrude their religious beliefs into their responsibilities as school board members the way Mr. Weigand, especially, intruded it into his campaign materials. My experience with this issue suggests that, like nearly every other place in the US where creationists have run for school board under the cover of bringing new economic insights to the job, they eventually, inexorably, come back to their religious convictions. I'm hopeful you're right but I have no reason to imagine you are. I'll be happy to be completely wrong.

My favorite part of Friedman is actually the final few words of his comment... as these are the components that BIG business typically does whatever is required to circumvent.

DanBack said...

I also agree with you Rich! But like Mark said, given the actions of Ginny and Mary in the past and how close both of them are to Randy and David I have no reason to believe they won't eventually try to inject their religious convictions into things - in a bad way.

Here is to hoping I'm wrong!

Anonymous said...

On Creationism; I have no doubt in my mind that is where Weigand & co. are headed. Anyone who has been paying any attention to this group for the past.. oh.. 8 or 9 years (at the least) that I have known them, would know that they have been pushing for creationism in the schools, disrupting science classes, stopping people in parking lots, in the doorways, etc, and have no intention to stop. If you think otherwise, you’re na├»ve.

I have never known this group to do anything without injecting their personal religious beliefs, no matter how benign the topic of conversation - insisting they and only they - are right. They have no humility what-so-ever that they may not know all there is to know of god & creation.

As for their 'concern' about the cost/budget of the school district, where was that concern when they've threatened to sue the school district (several times) or the costs they have run up for the district when issues that do not meet their particular religious criteria are not met?? The sound bite of being (fiscally) 'conservative' is a ruse.

As for running education like a business, just what would students be then? Consumers? Considering that Weigand/Marquardt/Maziarka do not seem to understand the concept of 'public', a school that is charged with educating everyone, I wonder just what kind of 'business' this would be. From remarks they have made I do not believe they have any idea how many children there are that do not fit nicely into their consumer 'mold' that the public school must educate. Children with disabilities, downs syndrome, autism, dyslexia, physical handicaps, behavioral problems... and students who wish to attend a accredited public university.

As for the maintenance of the buildings I often find this community to be penny wise & dollar foolish.

Free Lunch said...

I think that it was Sullivan who noted that form follows function.

I find it interesting that the new members were able to sell the idea that one of the most penny-pinching school boards in the state is full of big spenders. It is really unfortunate that no one forced the new members to make real proposals rather than vague attacks on the current board.

Rich, I have no idea if the new members will bring their religion to the board. It would be a shame if they would waste everyone's money and time doing so. They will lose if they try.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the new members won't bring the issue up, but I'm worried their views will now embolden his wife, Ginny and others to bring the issue up themselves. Then everyone can point out that it wasn't the board members bringing the issue up, they were just responding to their constituents' concerns. After all, they did campaign on the promise that they would listen to the taxpayers better than the current board members have.

Remember also, that Dave W. wrote a letter to the editor some months back in which he claimed that there were many legal scholars that were critical of the Kitzmiler v. Dover decision, saying it was wrongly decided. So I doubt they believe the issue has been legally closed.

This issue is foundational for people like the Wiegands and Maziarkas. Just read this quote from The New Answers Book published by Answers in Genesis;

"What is at stake here is the authority of Scripture, the character of God, the doctrine of death, and the very foundation of the gospel. If the early chapters of Genesis are not true literal history, then faith in the rest of the Bible is undermined, including its teaching about salvation and morality. . . . The health of the church, the effectiveness of her mission to a lost world, and the glory of God are at stake."

The district's budget issues pale in comparison to the importance of this for fundamentalists.

Free Lunch said...

[Weigand] claimed that there were many legal scholars that were critical of the Kitzmiler v. Dover decision, saying it was wrongly decided.

He's making things up. Kitzmiller was a very well-written case. Yes, it is true that the anti-science religious zealots did have problems other than the law: they were caught lying, they were hung out to dry by the folks at the Discovery Institute who were originally responsible for talking them into this foolish venture, and their lawyers were neither knowledgeable about science nor prepared to deal with the problems of the case.

All that said, the real problem for the anti-science creationists is that intelligent design is not science. It is clearly religious doctrine in sheep's clothing. The Thomas More Law Center knew that. They did not bother to appeal (the district had the creationists on the board fired by the citizens so the board wasn't going to appeal) on behalf of any of the creationists in the district because they knew that this was a very compelling opinion and that it would be upheld to the Supreme Court.

They will try to go judge shopping to find someone who is totally unqualified for the seat he has for any new attempts. I doubt that the TMLC or DI will choose to take their luck with the federal judges of the Eastern District of Wisc.

Anonymous said...

I agree Free Lunch. Folks like Wiegand have a very selective view of the world. The only legal reviews of Kitzmiller v. Dover that have been critical of the decision that I have been able to find have been written by Discovery Institute fellows and/or lawyers involved in the case on the side of the school district. Hardly objective analysis.

In Wiegand's mind this is all that is needed to declare the ruling faulty. However, you don't even need to be an attorney to see how ridiculous the defense was in the case. Just read the transcript of Walter Rothschild's cross-examination of Michael Behe, which the judge called a textbook cross-exam. It exposes Behe for the fraud that he is. He actually declared in that cross-exam that he wasn't interested in doing any research to verify his claims about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum. So much for science.

I'm still concerned about DI's whole push to "teach the controversy" and encourage "critical analysis" of Darwin's theory, which is why they pulled out of Kitzmiller in the first place. On the surface who could disagree with encouraging critical thinking but those phrases are just DI's code for intelligent design in the classroom. I'm not sre we have seen the end of the legal battles.

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