Consider the following headline from an editorial in a national newspaper: “Educating children should not be for profit – Learning has always been separate from the forces of the free market. And that’s how it should stay.” According to this editorial the issue appears to be black and white. The profit motive and learning simply do not mix, they never have and they never will. The debate is therefore closed. However, this statement raises more questions than it answers.

Firstly, would this newspaper still be prepared to support its claim that “educating children should not be for profit” if schools run by for-profit companies could be shown to produce much better results at a lower cost – especially for the less-well-off? Or should these schools be permanently precluded irrespective of how they perform?  While many politicians – might claim that no such evidence exists, we should also question why they are not interested in finding out which type of school performs the best. Are they confident in their belief that all government schools will always outperform all schools run by for-profit companies, both now and at any time in the future?  Or is there some objection in principle to the profit motive, even if the education of children suffers as a result of excluding it?

Secondly, the burden of proof must be placed on those who want to maintain the current restrictions on parents and the resulting government monopoly. Even if some parents would choose an inferior school rather than a superior one that was profit-making, is this newspaper suggesting that parents who see the matter differently should not be able to choose a profit-making school? Is the profit motive so obnoxious that it should not be allowed to prevail for those whose priority is simply a high-quality education? And why are parents deemed to be capable of voting politicians into power, but then deemed incapable by the very same politicians of choosing the best school for their children?  If parents are deemed to be ignorant, then why not extend this argument to its logical conclusion and demand that their right to vote should also be removed?

Thirdly, how can this newspaper justify campaigning so passionately for freedom and a free market within the press and the media, while at the same time campaign for the restriction of freedom and almost total government control over children’s schooling?  How can freedom and a free market be so fundamentally important when it comes to the market for newspapers or children’s books, but dismissed when applied to children’s schooling?  And why is political control, central planning and a government monopoly deemed to be unacceptable within the media but welcomed in education?

The above quotation then goes on to proudly state that, “learning has always been separate from the forces of the free market”. This statement shows how confused this debate has now become.  For example, if the forces of the free market include the freedom of parents to choose and the freedom of private providers to enter the sector, then this suggests that this newspaper believes and indeed celebrates the idea that learning has always been separate from these forces of freedom.  But if freedom refers to choice, autonomy, self-determination, independence, openness and the lack of restrictions, then how can restricting these forces be a good thing?  And if learning has always been separate from these forces, what other superior forces have been at play?  After all, what could possibly be more important than the forces of freedom in education?

In this debate it is also important to acknowledge that even in an open and competitive education sector, the anti-profit mentality will continue to exist in the minds of some parents who may choose to send their children to a variety of different schools for a variety of different reasons.  However, it is also important to distinguish between parents perfectly legitimate views concerning the role of the profit motive in their own children’s education and the very separate and much more sinister desire of these same parents (and politicians) to force all other parents to accept this own particular point of view.

Milton Freidman previously stated that the willingness to permit free speech to people who you agree with is hardly evidence of devotion to the principle of free speech.  Instead, the relevant test is willingness to permit free speech to people who you disagree with. And so the relevant test of the belief in individual freedom is the willingness to oppose state intervention even when it is designed to prevent individual activity which you personally dislike or disagree with.  Therefore, this provides a useful test to all those high minded people who continue to view schools run by for-profit companies as an unnecessary evil. Do they have the discipline to place their personal views to one side and instead recognise that the rights and responsibilities of individual parents must always come first? If they do, then they should be willing to oppose the existing government restrictions which prevent profit-making companies from managing state-funded schools, despite the fact that they may personally disagree with the idea.  This approach would therefore be seen as much less self-obsessed and instead much more compassionate towards the very private and personal beliefs and opinions of those who are directly responsible for children’s education – their parents.