Economic competition isn’t a sporting contest

Last week USA Today carried an editorial by an Alexandria, Virginia school teacher that contains an unfortunate misunderstanding of the term competition as it applies to economics and education.

The writer is Patrick Welsh, who is a member of member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors. The article is Schools can’t manage poverty.

In the article, Welsh makes one of the most inept analogies that I’ve ever seen. Here’s the heart of it:

Being an English teacher, I prepared a little analogy to ask him about the rationale for labeling schools on the basis of Adequate Yearly Progress. Duncan’s biographies often mention that he was co-captain of the Harvard basketball team during the 1986-87 season, his senior year. I reminded him that that team won only seven games and lost 17. Such a record, I told Duncan, was the mark of a “persistently low achieving” team, which made no “annual yearly progress.” I meant the analogy to be humorous, but teachers sitting near Duncan said he didn’t seem to take it that way.

I went on to say that I assumed Duncan and his teammates did the best they could with the talent they had, and that no matter what improvements they tried to make, it would be foolish to think their team could ever reach the highest benchmark in college basketball — the Final Four.

The ineptness is this: a basketball game is a competition that is designed to produce a winner and a loser (or maybe a tie in some sports). By definition — except for ties — there can’t be two winners. Someone has to lose.

But learning things in school is not a competition of the same type. When one student learns something (wins, in other words), it doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t get to learn (loses). In fact, if everyone masters the lesson, then all students are winners, and there are no losers.

But maybe Welsh isn’t writing about that type of competition. He might be speaking of market competition. An example of this might be schools competing with other schools for students.

This type of competition doesn’t necessarily produce a winner and a loser. Explaining competition in the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Wolfgang Kasper explains one of the benefits of market competition:

Discovery. Human well-being can always be improved by new knowledge. Competitive rivalry among suppliers and buyers is a powerful incentive to search for knowledge. Self-interest motivates ceaseless, widespread, and often costly efforts to make the best use of one’s property and skills. Central planning by government and government provision are sometimes advocated as a better means of discovering new products and processes. However, experience has shown that central committees are not sufficiently motivated and simply cannot marshal all the complex, often petty, and widely dispersed knowledge needed for broad-based progress.

Competition inspires people to improve, while central planning is the opposite.

Applying this locally to Kansas: As Kansas has a very weak charter school law that requires charter school approval by local school boards, there are very few charter schools. Combined with the lack of school choice implemented through vouchers or tax credits in Kansas, local school districts face very little competition.

This lack of market competition means that Kansas schools do not benefit from the dynamic discovery process that market competition fosters. The beneficiaries of this are those who favor the status quo in the Kansas education establishment and bureaucracy, including the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA, the teachers union) and the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB). The losers are Kansas schoolchildren.


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