School Choice? Pfft, we need Public Cafeterias!

School Choice?  Pfft, we need Public Cafeterias!

by Carsten Hood

School Choice

Around the country, people young and old are donning yellow scarves and celebrating National School Choice Week!

The public school system is rife with problems, but Americans have long grown accustomed to those problems.  Unfortunately, the education market is not structured to reflect people’s real choices and preferences.  Public schools do not face major competition, and that is itself a problem—or rather, the beginning of a solution.

If you think I have some sort of free market solution in mind, you’d be mistaken.  On the contrary, I hereby propose a Public Cafeteria System.  It’s just the model we need!  After all, we can’t trust the private sector with something as important to the fabric of society as feeding our nation’s children.  If nutrition were left to private, greed-fueled companies, we’d all be taken advantage of.

As a result of our current system, our youth are sick and malnourished. This has nothing to do with protectionist regulation that stifles local, natural food sources; monopolistic subsidies that encourage highly processed junk; or perverse public dietary policies dictated by special interests that prioritize corn flakes over meat and vegetables.  Nope, none of that adds to the nutrition problems we face.

In fact, government is the solution. And when I say government, I mean the real government—the federal government. Stuff as important as child nutrition doesn’t get left to your fickle, fragmented states, so don’t give me that high-minded nonsense about federalism and states’ rights. No, the federal government needs to feed your children, just like the Soviets fed Ukraine!

So how are we going to start properly nourishing our kids? Well, I’m hardly omniscient—like, say, a congressional subcommittee, a bureaucratic task force, or a corporate lobbyist—but I think I’ve got a pretty good plan. The Feds need to establish “public cafeterias” around the nation, which children can attend to be fed. Fed by the Feds! What could be more perfect?

Fed what, you may ask? Simple. Knowledgeable government experts will determine a plan to provide optimal nutriment to the nation’s children. You know what they say—one size fits all! Armed with their sound advice, the new public cafeteria system will stuff your kids so full of healthy that it hurts.

You won’t be able to transport your children to these cafeterias? No problem. We’ll just draft an army of buses running daily routes, courtesy of the state. Totally free!

Ok, but seriously, you say: how are we going to pay for it all? But that’s actually the easiest part. We’ll tax the rich, of course! Well, in reality we’re probably looking at federal property taxes—but don’t worry. It’ll be a public investment in societal wellbeing, for the good of the nation; we can even count it as part of GDP.

What—you’re still not down? Think you can feed your kids on your own? Sorry, but you’ll have to prove it. You’ll need to submit a dietary plan for your child to the state to be evaluated by authorities, along with monthly medical tests performed by licensed professionals to show your child’s health is adequate. Sounds like a huge pain, right? Exactly! After all, such antisocial behavior should be discouraged. In the new era of socialized nutrition, home-eating will be for weirdos.

Now, if you want to send your children to private institutions, then the system might allow for that. Politicians do like to pay lip service to the free market, after all. Of course, to guarantee society’s proper nourishment, we’ll have to regulate the private cafeterias same as the public ones. No child left behind! So basically they’ll be the same thing, except artificially expensive and with fancier names. And of course even if you’re using a private cafeteria, you’ll still have to pay your fair share to the public ones.

Alright, fine. If you fight back hard enough we might let you use cafeteria vouchers. This way you can direct your child’s nutrition-dedicated tax dollars to a cafeteria of your choosing. A matter of fact, let’s call this option “cafeteria choice,” a token of Big Brother’s benevolence. That’ll disguise the fact that you really don’t have much of a choice at all. (Don’t you just love Orwellian doublespeak?)

And what will we call the new state agency charged with supervising this project? How about the “Federal Agency for Invading Lives”, or just FAIL for short.

Oh, and fail it will. Drastically.

In my proposed system the concentrated interests of state-backed corporations will promptly hijack public cafeteria food policy, just like massive education firms have co-opted school curriculums. Just like they presently exploit public learning, corporations and bureaucrats will profit at the expense of children’s health.

Private eateries oriented towards kids will be driven or regulated out of business. Soon, even parents will grow accustomed to not being involved in feeding their children. In a generation or two, we’ll forget that it was ever the responsibility of parents to provide for their children’s nourishment at all. In fact, such a notion will seem implausible. In this age of commercialism and fast food, they’ll say, how could average people and greedy entrepreneurs be trusted to supply kids with healthy sustenance?

When the costs of the public cafeteria system skyrocket due to bureaucratic and corporatist incentives, we’ll just blame the free market. When the kids get fatter and sicker, we’ll say society’s not contributing enough and that we need to raise taxes. If you object to this, you’ll be a heretic. Clearly, they’ll say, you don’t care if children starve. It’ll be almost as bad as opposing funding for public schools.

Also, under the public cafeteria system, kids will never learn how to feed themselves. When they reach adulthood they’ll be starting from scratch. They might, however, figure out how to deal drugs in the public cafeterias. Then we’ll have to bring in cops, drug dogs, metal detectors, and security camera.

Oh, and the public cafeteria workers might unionize.

Okay, that last one went too far. And this is all ridiculous, I know. We would never be so foolish as to implement my public cafeterias, or any related system.

Well, except for the one we already have. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the purpose of my awful public cafeteria plan is to parallel our public school system, and to highlight its flaws. Replace the word cafeteria with school, nutrition with education, feeding with teaching, and so on, and you realize they’re not dissimilar concepts, and that many of their justifications and downsides are shared.

But with public schools the problem is real and deeply entrenched, since the system has had decades to establish itself. And with education the return on investment is slower to emerge and harder to identify than with food. If kids were starved of nutrition by my proposed public cafeteria system as much as they are starved of knowledge by the present public school system, I think many would soon grow quite ill. Some might even be famished. No good citizen would stand for it; there’d be riots in the streets within weeks.

Thankfully, we can leave are food system alone. The school system, however, needs fixing. The first legal step is to allow for alternative solutions: homeschooling and private schooling. But we also need to deregulate these institutions. We need to empower entrepreneurs and parents to figure out the best ways to educate kids, just like we do with feeding them.

Education should be cheap. It should be efficient. It should be enjoyable. It should be diverse. Basically, it should be more like dining out, home-cooking, and grocery shopping.  That’s why you should support school choice.  Not doing so would be as ridiculous as supporting the public cafeteria system.

For more information, check out http://schoolchoiceweek.com

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