Competition, Not Money, Works Wonders in Education

Published January 28, 1994

About three decades ago, the Johnson Administration commissioned the outstanding social scientist James S. Coleman to prove that America’s public schools needed more tax dollars. Coleman’s 1965 report, however, turned out to be an unwelcome bombshell: It showed that the link between how much the public schools spent and how much students actually learned was negligible. Certainly, nothing in the history of the Chicago Public Schools can cast doubt on that finding. Per pupil, Chicago consistently has spent well above average, with results far below average.

Readers who live in the Chicago suburbs–some of which boast the finest public schools in the U.S.–may find yourselves puzzled by those of us who insist that public schools cannot meet the educational needs of the inner city. You may send your own kids t o a public school that is providing them with an excellent education.

You may have noticed that in the suburbs, government doesn’t always perform as dismally as free market theorists might predict. For example, those of you who golf might have found that some suburban municipal golf courses–Glen Ellyn’s Village Links, Buff alo Grove’s Arboretum, and Mundelein’s new Steeple Chase, for example–are among the most challenging in all Chicagoland.

In fact, government ownership per se is often less a problem than lack of competition. The admirable quality of many suburban public schools stems from intense competition: among suburbs, to make their communities as attractive to young families as possib le, and among public and private schools vying for students whose families can afford to send their kids to pretty much any school they want.

Competition helps explain why Wilmette would spend vast sums of money on a public high school like New Trier–even though Coleman’s research finds that spending is largely unrelated to student achievement. Indeed, competition helps explain why spending do es appear to buy a high-quality education for New Trier students.

The community of Wilmette is engaged in an intense competition for families who can afford to live almost anywhere. Similarly, Wilmette’s public school system is engaged in an intense competition for students whose families can afford to send their childr en almost anywhere–including private schools. These competitive pressures compel Wilmette’s public officials to make sure that tax dollars are spent more efficiently than in the typical public school.

But is it really “efficient” to spend education tax dollars on a 26-acre high school campus? In an environment that is highly competitive for students, it might very well be. New Trier’s spectacular property serves as a highly visible symbol of the commit ment to education made by Wilmette residents. This attracts parents who make strong efforts to give their children a fine education–efforts that include not just paying high taxes to support the campus, but also helping with their kids’ homework and volu nteering for school organizations.

These essential competitive pressures, of course, are largely absent in Chicago, especially in the inner city. The few official magnet schools don’t need to compete: They already have waiting lists scores of students long. The neighborhood public schools don’t need to compete: Their students are assigned to them, and unless the parents can afford to relocate or enroll their kids in a private school, the neighborhood public school has a pretty-much guaranteed client base.

Chicago’s local school councils might be viewed as the city’s “26-acre campus.” They represent an attempt–largely symbolic–to give parents more control over what happens in their students’ schools, and thus more of an incentive to participate actively i n their children’s education. But a symbol isn’t enough. What happens when parents discover the symbol has no substance?

If Wilmette’s school system puts the 26-acre symbol above what happens in the classroom, parents and students can leave. That’s the essence of competition. By contrast, if Chicago puts “participatory democracy” above student achievement, most parents and students are stuck.

The fact is, education consumers–parents and students–in Chicago’s inner city are nearly helpless to make the system provide what they want and need. Private school teachers don’t strike, and public school teachers in affluent suburbs do only rar ely. In these environments, service to the education consumer takes priority.

A voucher plan, such as that currently being debated in Springfield, would empower Chicago’s education consumers. If we really care about our kids and the quality of education they receive, there is no substitute for competition.

Written for The Heartland Institute by Steve Sailer, a Chicago marketing consultant.