Schools should receive taxpayer dollars only if parents willingly choose to send their children to them. Schools that consistently fail to persuade enough parents to trust them with their children should not be rewarded with funding, as is now often the case with public schools. Instead, such schools should be closed so their students can attend better schools and their staffs and other resources can be put to better use elsewhere.
Competition Brings Out the Best in People
Competition brings out the best in people and organizations, not because it appeals to greed or selfishness, but because the desire to innovate, earn the esteem of others, and be best in one’s field is deeply and widely instilled (Olson 2000; Novak 1996). Competitors provide benchmarks against which to measure individual efforts and also invaluable lessons in what to do and what not to do. Rewards for high achievement are common in all fields, from athletics to music, business, restaurants, medicine, and science.
Requiring that schools compete should not be controversial. Competition is relied upon to provide food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medicine, and countless other essential goods and services. Competition among providers of pre-school and after-school services and higher education is allowed and encouraged. Yet constructive competition among primary and secondary schools is suppressed by assigning students to public schools and withholding public funds from private schools.
Schools Improve When They Compete
A survey of more than 35 studies of the effect of competition on public schools found “a sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes” (Belfield and Levin 2001, 1). Caroline Hoxby (2002) reports student achievement in public schools improves as public inter-district choice increases and as the share of students who attend private schools in the metropolitan area rises. In other research, Hoxby (2001b) also found schools in metropolitan areas with maximum choice among districts are 35 percent more likely than schools in areas with minimum choice to have curricula that reach high standards in English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language.
A 2010 study of the effects of school choice on students in Florida found “that greater degrees of competition are associated with greater improvements in students’ test scores following the introduction of the program; these findings are robust to the different variables we use to define competition” (Figlio and Hart 2010).
Lack of Competition Breeds Mediocrity and Waste
When protected from competition, even talented and well-intentioned public officials are motivated to act in ways intended to increase their income, authority, prestige, or leisure (Borcherding 1977). The usual bureaucratic approach is to minimize choices for people for whom services are to be provided and to routinize procedures as much as possible, usually in the name of fairness and efficiency but often simply to reduce the bureaucrats’ workload. The result in public education has been large and impersonal schools, assignment of students to schools based on where their parents live rather than the special needs of students, and school codes and collective bargaining agreements that stifle creativity and mandate mediocrity (Gatto 2001).
The absence of competition and choice in public schooling has allowed school administrators to be dominated by teacher unions representing the employees they are supposed to be managing (Lieberman 2007). Union leaders influence political decisions affecting school budgets and restrict access to information needed to implement regulations. The interests of union leaders are often different from and therefore compete with those of the students.
Recommended reading: Caroline M. Hoxby, “How School Choice Affects the Achievement of Public School Students,” in Peter T. Hill, ed., Choice With Equity (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2002), pp. 141-178; Myron Lieberman, The Educational Morass: Overcoming the Stalemate in American Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield).