This is the season when many Americans gather before the TV to watch the film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Jimmy Stewart plays the hometown boy who considers his life to be a failure. But he is saved from jumping from a bridge by an angel who shows him what life in his little town would be like if he had never existed.
We do not stop to consider that director Frank Capra is presenting a parable about public good versus privatization.
Only a short time ago, the Bush administration was promoting everyone being able to take part of their social security money and invest in all those higher earning stocks. Now we know how bad that idea is!
But what would this classic Christmas story say about the privatization of education. What if everyone with children got an allowance, their share of the base student allocation that goes to schools, to apply toward the school of their choice—essentially privatizing public schools? Advocates of “school choice” say that would make for much improved schools—the marketplace at work in education.
But just like social security versus gambling on stocks, the consequence would be quite different. Just look at the desolate Potterville, the result of running a system based only on private profit.
Competition only works when there are competing choices. In Kansas there is no surplus of schools or teachers at the secondary level to allow “market forces” to weed the better schools and teachers from the worse, and in numbers that still serve us all.
We currently have a small number of private schools that can lure away some of the better teachers with higher pay and better students. Wealthier parents who can afford private schools also have children who have a greater average advantage in early exposure to books and richer learning environments at home. These schools to some extent turn out better students because they only take better motivated and more affluent students.
Public schools must take all students. Private schools only cream off a few of the best. So public schools are still the educational melting pot that has served the U.S. for the last century. However, expand the competition for a very limited number of good schools and teachers, by providing total choice, and the partitioning of the population by wealth will be dramatic. When the sprinkling of exceptional teachers is sucked into the richest of schools in a new competitive environment, the poorest of families will find their children get the leftover teachers. In some disciplines there might be no qualified teachers left outside of the privatized elite.
We all benefit when the younger generation is well educated. Even when we do not have any children ourselves. It is like Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie, desperately trying to save his savings-and-loan from a run-on-the-bank caused by the private banker, Mr. Potter. He addresses the crowd that is demanding to withdraw their deposits by explaining that the money is in your house and your neighbor’s house. So it is with education. We are investing our money in your children and your neighbor’s children.
Privatized institutions need to generate a profit for owners and stockholders. But we need all of our tax money to go for benefitting our children. In this holiday movie, by so clearly contrasting what life would be like with and without the character played by Jimmy Stewart, we can all see the consequences of operating for private profit or public good.
The movie may be fiction, but it portrays some stark realities. Realities about privatization that Americans in hard economic times should be thinking about today.
This holiday allegory is about privatization versus public good. And when the public good prevails as it did throughout the U.S. 20th century, the title says it all: “It’s a Wonderful [Public School] Life.”
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.