Are choices in education really less palatable than choices in medicine?

While newly elected Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s ideas for education have gotten more attention than his ideas for health care, he made during his inaugural speech Tuesday what could be considered an egalitarian argument for choices in medical delivery.

In the same breath that the Republican governor called for the “maximum amount of choice” in education, he demanded that government stop treating patients “like interchangeable parts on an assembly line.”


Patients want to be treated as individuals … choosing their own doctors and making their own decisions in consultation with those doctors … The very wealthy will always have plenty of options. But most Floridians have far too little say in how their children are educated or how health care services are provided.

This speaks to the intriguing intellectual continuum represented in two equally polarizing public policy debates.

There aren’t many people in the mainstream who would quibble with Scott’s call to give low-income families opportunities to choose the right doctor and to make decisions in consultation with those doctors. But in the arena of education those options tend to take on an entirely different character. Though we may feel low-income parents should have the freedom to choose their children’s doctors we are not sure whether that should extend to their children’s schools or teachers.

In virtually every area of life but K-12 education, low-income citizens receiving public support are empowered to choose from government-approved private providers. And that middle ground in health care is generally seen as the nexus in the debate over health care reform.

Efforts to revamp our nation’s health care system have jumpstarted some volatile policy debates, but those discussions have yielded highly complex positions supporting options along a lengthy continuum of proposals. To be sure, those on the far left would fantasize about government-run and government-operated health care and those on the far right would advocate cutting government out of an entirely market-driven system. Most Americans and most policy makers, however, take a variety of positions in the middle 50 percent and keep their debates among a range of choices and a range of regulatory requirements. Most Americans are also perfectly comfortable with a Medicare single-payer plan that allows seniors options in choosing their doctors.

Even ardent opponents of President Obama’s health care reform efforts are divided on whether, or how much, to repeal the law, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Nearly 40 percent of those polled who oppose the law want to take a “wait and see” approach before repealing it. Even those who favor an immediate repeal are split into two camps: Those who want to kill the whole law and those who want to roll back only parts of it.

But those shades of gray rarely make it into the debate over reforming public education. And when they do, they typically elicit a head-turning reaction, as exemplified by an Atlantic Monthly interviewer surprised by Arianna Huffington’s support for a “single-payer” model for education.

Huffington, one of the world’s most celebrated liberals, responded:

As far as single-payer education goes, what is important, and the reason I called it “single payer,” is that progressives love single-payer health care. This is the same principle. No one in single payer health care is proposing that the government actually provide the health care. By the same principle, why shouldn’t the government provide the funds, and then multiple providers can actually provide the education?

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.

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