What If Grocery Stores Were Run Like Public Education? by Brian Kates

When confronted with individuals that don’t understand or endorse choice in education, I like to present the analogy: what if grocery stores were run like public education? Imagine for a moment if all retail stores selling consumable food items were 1) owned and run by your local city government and 2) staffed with employees that were all members of the same union. Customers were assigned grocery stores to shop at based on their zip codes, with lower quality stores prevailing in poorer areas. In some instances, only the healthiest patrons were allowed to frequent the stores with the highest quality food stuffs, which were generally located in the wealthier areas. As a customer, your shopping experience and what you could purchase would be solely determined by your zip code, your health, and the decisions a few key politicians made about how they think you should eat.

If you try to apply this to your own experience as a customer, how happy would you be with any of the following outcomes?
1)      You are forced to shop at the corner “Food Mart” for all your groceries based on your zip code.
2)      You can’t shop at Whole Foods because you aren’t healthy enough.
3)      Employees are never fired even if they’ve done their jobs incorrectly or been inappropriately rude to customers.
4)      The employee’s union was the single largest financial contributor for elections to the city’s Board of Directors, governing all grocery stores, AND this Board negotiates the union contract with the grocery store employees.
5)      A “Best of Chicago” chef at the deli of a small, gourmet fresh market has the same take-home pay as a deli clerk at Jewel Osco because they both had the same number of years of experience.
6)     You have LITTLE OR NO CHOICE as to where to buy groceries and the city owned grocery stores will receive the SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY from you REGARDLESS of where you shop and whether you buy anything at all.

When I say this, most people react in one of two ways. One, they think it’s a terrible idea and say, “Why would you ever structure something that way?”  Why indeed. Or two, they say that running grocery stores and running schools are too different to compare. I’m not so sure about that.

With food, we have so many choices that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine purchasing groceries without an almost innumerable amount of options. You know what brand of canned soup you prefer, where it’s the cheapest, and what grocery store has the best service. So my question remains: why should education be any different?

– Please note the post reflects the views and opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of YNPN Chicago. We encourage your comments and feedback.

Brian Kates has spent nearly six years in the charter school space and most recently was a Senior Associate with the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture fund that invests philanthropic capital in the expansion of high quality charter schools all over the United States. Brian gained his financial analysis experience in turnaround management, including working with a family business in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Brian has worked with the Charter School Growth Fund for nearly five years and hold a Masters of Science in Finance from the University of Denver.

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2 Responses to What If Grocery Stores Were Run Like Public Education? by Brian Kates

  1. Joe says:

    FYI people are relegated to their neighborhood corner store in many poor areas of the city. The city has cut public transportation services all over the south side and for-profit grocery stores with healthy food like whole foods do not move into poor neighborhoods. FOOD DESERTS are real. These for profit grocery stores try whenever possible to pay their workers poverty wages, due to the competition present in the grocery retail market. As a result, Jewel and Dominick’s workers have joined together into the same union! And I’m sure there are middle aged cashiers that support families because of their seniority. Yes, this means, they do in fact make more than a great 18 year old “chef of the deli.” And I haven’t experienced one rude comment from a Jewel employee in all my life! Go figure! However, I can’t say the free-market private food industry has kept cheap healthy food on the plates of most Americans. Private companies’ like Kraft destroy the earth, and use wealth and power to maintain a market climate that props up cheap unhealthy food for our consumption.

    But ya know what, you’re right, instead of ending poverty and keeping our schools public as they are in all other western democracies, we should hand them over to the market.

    Why not let Monsanto, CocaCola ( http://killercoke.org/ ), and Nike run our schools!

  2. D. says:

    Hey there Brian,

    Thanks for the article. However, as a teacher inside a charter school I would like to relay how a great many of us (teachers) see the situation.

    First, I take issue with the entire premise of your analogy. As a teacher and former student (the latter a category the vast majority of us can check) myself, I believe that education, as a pillar of our society, is a RIGHT, not a product. As a human right, education is best when it is distributed in a fair way to all members of our society. This not only is a benevolent characteristic of with merit unto itself, but when coupled with the principles of equality and equity; education can also be used as a meaningful buttress against the tides of the fury borne out of a great rising class divide and gulf of inequality (or at the very least, if you disagree with that assertion, the mass perception of such a divide). One might argue that access to food is also a human right, and that’s an entirely different discussion, but let’s go on the premise that that KINDS of food product that one has access to should be characterized by choice/variability based on income and status in life. The poor have bodegas and the rich have organic, grass-fed fresh edibles.

    Even if you aren’t bothered (or convinced) that our socioeconomic environment is marked by extreme and mounting inequality of opportunity from birth (which has largely to do with the intersection of race and class. check out The New Jim Crow), even if the bifurcated nature of the city of Chicago doesn’t bother you on a personal moral level, I believe that in a pragmatic sense, vast inequality of access to social services (which are the RIGHTS of taxpayers, low, middle and upper income) should alarm you. When a growing section of those at the bottom of society understand or perceive a structural inequality which actively works against them, and they see the city of Chicago disinvest in its schools in low-income areas, which Mayor Emanuel has exhibited par excellence, then eventually what replaces hope and expectation is anger, mistrust and eventually, rebellion.

    Also, regarding unions and unionized teachers, if you look at the union movement in Chicago, you will witness that the reason why teaching is considered a profession and that teachers are payed at a living wage is that underpaid, undervalued teachers stood up for their rights as the educators of society’s kids, the preparers of tomorrow. There is nothing wrong or inherently shameful about unionization and it can provide a positive impact on the health and educational environment of a school. Parents and students also understand the need and benefit of a unionized teaching staff.

    Anyway, thanks for the post Brian, and I hope this wasn’t too much of a rant. I just take serious issue with the analogy. Check out Chile as a specter of the future for American education if we travel down the “choice” route. In short, education is NOT a product and education should be treated as a HUMAN RIGHT for all American citizens (kids), and should be invested in as such.

    Finally, you might want to check out this Atlantic article; you might find it eye-opening. It really explores the Choice v. Equality debate:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

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