CURMUDGUCATION: Rural Life vs. Free Market

CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

Rural Life vs. Free Market

I live in a small town and rural county in northwest Pennsylvania. Our population is a little over 50,000. The median value of a home is a little over $80K. Per capita income is a little over $23K, and our official poverty rate is 13.5%. As of 2010, we had about 81 persons per square mile. Our biggest city contains maybe 7,000 people, though our towns are surrounded by stretches of villages, farmland, and boroughs.

My town. My house is an inch or two beyond the right edge

We are not gut-wrenchingly poor. We are not Montana-style sparse. We are not Kentucky hollow rural. We are just on the northern tip of Appalachia, and most residents would deny we live in that region. We have major cities (Pittsburgh, Cleveland) within a couple hours’ drive. I’d call us a typical, if not extreme, example of a rural/small town area.

We have one mall. It has a Sears for an anchor store. We have a couple of McDonalds (first one arrived about forty-five years ago), a Wendy’s, a Burger King. We have one Wal-Mart. We have no Chipotle, no Red Lobster, no higher-end retail chains. We have one movie theater. We have a couple of regional family restaurants, but no national chains like Perkins or Denny’s, and if you want to go out to eat after 10 PM on any night of the week, well, you can’t (well, you can get food at a bar or at Sheetz, a regional– and far superiors– version of 7-11). There are chunks of the county where FedEx and UPS do not deliver (they just hand the package off to USPS).

We are fortunate for regions of our sort because we do have a hospital. It’s a branch of UPMC, and it’s here because of a long convoluted story involving lawyers, angry doctors, mergers, and court orders, and while it provides plenty of decent care, like most rural residents, if we want any kind of more advanced treatment or procedures, we have to go to Pittsburgh or Erie. In surrounding counties, hospital health care is always a long drive away.

This is how the free market works. Businesses go where the customers and the money are, and if the local market can’t sustain a particular business, the business will either avoid that market or fold after it opens.

The free market does not like rural areas. The people there are too spread out and they don’t have all that much money. Some retailers have learned how to work around that. Wal-Mart is the most notable example of a company that has figured out how to make money from spread out rural non-wealthy folks (hint: it doesn’t involve providing them with outstanding, excellent products). There are also variations of remainder stores– businesses that buy up inventory that big retailers couldn’t sell and then sell those at discount prices. We have several of those.

Bottom line. When you say that you want rural areas to depend on the free market for goods and services, you’re saying that rural areas will just have to make do with less. When we’re talking about burgers or clothing or movies or late-night dining, that’s not so big a deal. But when we start talking about health care and roads and education, it’s not so okay.

In some ways, rural communities can be at a disadvantage compared to high-poverty urban areas. Urban poverty is generally dense– if the government offers businesses a ten-cent-per-person profit for providing services or goods, the business has a chance to make money by dealing in bulk. Rural communities offer no such opportunity.

The free market says that what you deserve is what you can afford, and when we talk about services that are provided to the community as a whole– like roads and health care and education– what rural communities can afford is not much. Every call to privatize such services is a call to rural communities saying, “You deserve less.”

Privatizers slip around this point a couple of ways, most notably by erasing the idea of services to a community and replacing it with the idea of commodities sold to individuals. So a school is not an institution that provides a backbone of the community, but just a business that sells education to individual students (and has nothing to do with everyone else).

Rural communities are also ripe for internet-based businesses. Can’t get it locally? Just order it on line. That’s definitely a blessing in many instances, but it comes at a price. Our local hospital branch is happy to offer distance doctoring, where you can do your consulting with a far-away physician on a screen, which is not exactly a big boon at a moment when you’re facing all the fear and uncertainty that comes with illness or injury. Better than nothing? That may be true, but I bet nobody who can actually get a face-to-face flesh-and-blood doctor is saying, “Never mind– I’d rather just talk to her on a computer screen.”

And internet-based businesses suck at customer service. Cyber schools have descended on some rural areas and sucked up buckets of money, seriously damaging the tax base for the local community school. At the same time, they leave students with little human interaction or parents with any recourse when things aren’t quite working out. And they leave local taxpayers who aren’t actual customers of the business (but whose taxes pay the bills) absolutely no recourse for complaint at all.

Rural schools are branching out beyond straight-up cyber school to “course choice,” a means of saying, “Why sure, we offer Chinese language studies here” and then plunking the student down in front of software driven cyber school. My own school offered Chinese language courses at one point. A few students tried them and found them boring, lacking any human touch, isolating, and boring. Internet-based course choice in many cases seems to be nothing more than a computerized version of handing a student a textbook and saying, “Go teach yourself this subject.”

Better than nothing? Probably. But when your argument for a business is “We’re better than nothing!” you’re not exactly raising the flag for excellence.

Abandoning rural areas to a free market education system is deciding that rural communities deserve less, should get less, will have to settle for something whose greatest virtue is “Better than nothing.” As with much of ed reform, it would be easier to have a conversation about all of this if folks would say, “Look, we don’t want to spend money on Those Children in Those Communities. We think they should just settle for less because that’s what their socio-economic level entitles them to.” That would be hard to defend, but at least it would be honest.

Source: CURMUDGUCATION: Rural Life vs. Free Market

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