In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel says that today “almost everything is up for sale.” He gives some examples.*
$Rent out space on your body to display ads: Air New Zealand paid 30 people $777 to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos advertising their flights.
$Volunteer to be a guinea pig for pharmaceutical drug trials and earn up to $7500 or more depending on how much toxicity accompanies drug.
$Stand in line to hold a place ($20 an hour) for Capitol Hill lobbyists who want to attend congressional hearings.
$If you are a second grader in an underachieving Dallas (TX) school for each book you read you will get paid $2.
And it is this last item that I want to elaborate because schools have become reformers’ favorite targets for cash incentives to change student and teacher behavior that go well beyond the business involvement I described in Arlington (VA) in the 1970s and 1980s. The “creep of marketplace reasoning into public schools” is the unexamined use of these cash incentives in current school reform efforts to solve larger national problems –producing skilled graduates to strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness and reduce inequalities in the U.S.
Of course, schools have welcomed the marketplace since the early 20th century. For example, in the 1920s, Ivory Soap gave bars to children for soap-carving tournaments. Since then the Campbell Soup Company provided lessons on nutrition; Proctor and Gamble sponsored materials on why disposable diapers help the planet (Sandel, pp. 197-198). Such gifts of instructional materials saved districts money.
Slowly, recognition among teachers and policymakers grew that such sponsored materials, freely given to schools, degrade the norm of teachers using unbiased materials in classroom lessons and undercut the goal of students becoming critical thinkers (unless teachers have students analyze the Campbell soup and Proctor and Gamble lessons for bias).
Commercialized instructional materials are easier to detect and stop. Far harder to halt is the slide of cash-strapped districts becoming marketers to raise lost taxpayer dollars. Since the 1980s, budget cuts that gutted staff and programs and a public hostile to tax increases have pushed districts school boards and school chiefs to use marketplace reasoning to raise funds.
Districts found money in businesses who paid school boards to place ads on sports facilities, buses, school grounds, and textbooks.
They found money in corporate sponsorship of school events.
They found money in installing vending machines for soft drinks, candies, and even nutritious foods where the district and vendor split proceeds (e.g., Coca Cola or Pepsi, carrot sticks).
They found money in getting electronic equipment in exchange for showing ads to students (e.g., Channel 1)
Schools scrounging funds to replace lost tax dollars helps to explain, in part, how marketplace reasoning has slowly entered schools. But these instances of corporate-sponsored instructional materials and advertisements placed on public property are not the same as paying children to read books, come to school, and do well on standardized tests. Or pay teachers more whose students have scored well on standardized tests.
Such reform-driven policies dole out cash to change student and teacher behavior. Using cash incentives is pure gold coin in the economist’s realm. Although such payments to students and teachers may or may not work (see here and here), Sandel sees these “perverse incentives” corrupting basic values of public schooling.
Why is that? “There are,” Sandel says, “some things money should not buy” (p. 7). [See Sandel YouTube excerpt on this point].
Markets are supposed to be value-free. “If someone is willing to pay for sex or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is, ‘How much?’” (p. 14). We have seen the results of such reasoning in Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers in the near-collapse of the economy in 2008. Still there are moral limits to buyer and seller transactions. As Sandel points out, we prohibit parents from selling their children and citizens selling their votes because they degrade and corrupt public and private morals. When policymakers approve cash incentives for students, is that corrupting?
Sandel answers yes. Paying students to attend school, read books, and pass tests changes attitudes toward achievement–better to read for the cash rather than reading is worth doing in of itself. Moreover, cash incentives degrades the school culture. If a positive school culture is what Kent Peterson and Terry Deal say is a “shared sense of what is important, a shared ethos of caring and concern, and a shared commitment to helping students learn” then paying students and teachers reduces human relations to shopping at 7-Eleven (el199809_peterson, p. 29).
Forget about schools trying to build communities where adults and children work together, help one another, and respect differences among themselves. Cash incentives for students and teachers, Sandel argues, is market reasoning that damages their mission to build healthy, engaged citizens. I agree.
*Readers should know that Debra Satz, a philosopher at Stanford University, makes a similar case in Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale (2010)–a source that Sandel fails to mention in his book. Readers may want to read her argument, one that she made to graduating seniors in 2010.