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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Is Education a Commodity?

Commoditizing education might not be a bad thing, depending on your definition of the word.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.

Education is not a commodity!”

I have argued for school choice long enough that I’ve heard (and read) this objection many times. I’ve tried to have sympathy for it, too, but to no avail. I generally ask the person what they mean by “commodity” and why they believe education does not qualify. As best I can tell, the problem is that the term “commodity” has at least two definitions in the public consciousness. Whether or not education is or should be a commodity might just depend on the definition we are using.

What Is a Commodity?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are no fewer than five definitions of the word “commodity.” When we debate whether education is a commodity, I think two of these definitions are usually at play. One definition (number 5), suggests that a commodity is a good “that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market.” Education clearly qualifies as a commodity. By this definition, anything that can be traded on a market—from the food I buy to counseling services—is a commodity.

This is the definition defenders of school choice like myself use. And by this definition, education—or at least formal schooling—clearly qualifies as a commodity. It can be, and in fact is, bought and sold in the same way counseling services might be bought and sold. A school has a service to provide and is willing to provide it in return for payment. In fact, if the critics were right that school isn’t a commodity—at least by this definition—the school choice debate would be a non-issue. Schooling couldn’t be bought or sold. Yet, clearly, it can.

But Should Education Be a Commodity?

Some folks who say education isn’t a commodity might mean that education should not be bought or sold, even though it technically can. If that is what they mean, I’d simply ask them to be clearer in their language. They do not mean that education is not a commodity, but that it should not be bought or sold. It seems like a nit-pick, but the change in phrasing is important because it is quite literally a different debate. Rather than a debate over whether education is like other services we buy or sell, the new question becomes whether or not we ought to sell it even if it is like those other services.

I’ve had a good many discussions with people with deep moral objections to the buying and selling of education; even if it can be bought and sold, they say, it should not be. Perhaps because I do not have much sympathy for that view, I like to ask why they say that education should not be bought and sold. Their answers are usually about how good educations can’t be standardized because students aren’t widgets.

Another Definition of Commodity

Commodities might invoke images of raw products that are standardized in quality.

This gets us to the second possible definition of “commodity,” the one I think is most common in the minds of school choice detractors. Merriam-Webster suggests that a “commodity” can refer to “a mass-produced unspecified product.” Investopedia seconds that definition by pointing out that the “quality of a given commodity may differ slightly, but it is essentially uniform across producers.” If we are thinking of commodities in this way, commodities might invoke images of raw products that are standardized in quality, from corn to copper.

Who Is More Likely to Standardize Education?

If this type of standardized thing is what we mean by “commodity,” I can understand why folks don’t want education to be a commodity. As long as students are different, they might argue, education shouldn’t be “one size fits all.” I agree! Then again, that’s why I am for school choice.

If we want to avoid “commodification,” the worst thing we can do is leave schools in the hands of governments.

When someone objects to school choice because it “commodifies” education, I like to remind them of two things. First, if crass standardization is what they are worried about, governments and their public school systems do a wonderful job of standardizing! I’d argue that the worst thing we can do if we want to avoid “commodification” is to leave schools in the hands of governments. Conversely, the best thing we can do is to open up avenues for competing providers and school choice.

Secondly, I like to remind those who object to the “commodification” of education that they are probably using a different definition of the word than I am. When they hear “commodity,” they are probably imagining some standardized thing like widgets. When I hear “commodity,” I am simply imagining a service that can be bought and sold in a market. Some things in markets—a lot of items in my grocery store, for instance—are standardized because people want standardization. (I certainly want to know that the cheese I buy today will taste the same as the cheese I bought last week.)

Other things we buy in markets—think counseling or interior design services—are not at all standardized because consumers don’t want standardization. In fact, markets will produce goods and services that are as standardized (or not) as customers seem to want. Some families might want a standardized approach to education because they believe X model is effective and want their children educated in that model with fidelity. Other families will prefer schools that are not standardized, that are flexible enough to educate different students differently.

“Commodity” is a tricky word with several possible definitions. It can refer to anything that can be traded in a market, or more specifically, to a standardized and interchangeable product. When school choice opponents object that “education is not a commodity,” it probably behooves us to ask what they mean by “commodity” and what their precise objection actually is.