Competition Would Improve U.S. Education

Published October 3, 2005

Dear Editor:

The Daily Herald hit a triple with its September 14 editorial about the continuing slippage of U.S. students in international performance rankings: First, the present system is not delivering quality education to all students. Second, with spending per student second only to Switzerland, the problem is not money but how it is spent. Third, higher education may have some lessons for K-12 schools.

The most important lesson K-12 education can learn from U.S. higher education is the value of competition — a feature largely absent from the existing public school system. A recent survey by The Economist concluded that “America’s system of higher education is the best in the world.” One of the reasons for this superiority, noted the survey, is that American universities compete for everything — students, professors, research grants, and even basketball stars. This ongoing competition means “successful institutions cannot rest on their laurels.”

Could competition improve K-12 public education when so many other improvement efforts have failed? Yes, according to Harvard University education researcher Caroline Hoxby, who spoke in Chicago earlier this month on “The future of education reform” to over 500 supporters of The Heartland Institute. Her analysis of the voucher program in Milwaukee showed that public schools improve when they have to compete with voucher schools.

Other studies have shown similar results. For example, a 2003 Manhattan Institute study of Florida’s A+ voucher program found that the greater the competitive pressure public schools face from vouchers, the more the schools improve student achievement. A 2001 literature review by other researchers concluded that even weak competition among schools results in improved student achievement — and lower costs and higher teacher salaries, too.

Our future prosperity depends on getting significantly improved performance out of our K-12 education system. It’s time we used competition to spur that improvement.

George A. Clowes
Mount Prospect, Illinois
[email protected]

George Clowes ([email protected]) is a Senior Fellow with The Heartland Institute