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The wonderful and frightening uncertainty of competition

Writing from Miami, Florida

In a recent column by John Stossel (Competition Works) we find this paragraph:

Take education. Bureaucrats like to say, you will go to this school, because we said so, and you will be taught according to this program, because we said so and we know best. Those of us with confidence in markets think you could do better deciding for yourself. Neither the bureaucrats nor the freedom lovers can judge what’s in your interest better than you can. One big difference is, we know what we don’t know, while they think they know everything.

Competition. A dirty word when applied to government and education. It’s really a simple concept. Its straightforward hope is that people should be able to make choices about what they want to do, rather than being told what to do by the government.

When applied to public education, the importance of competition and consumer (parental) choice is paramount. When children are forced by law to attend a school day after day, year after year, government imposes greatly on personal liberty. When that imposition is not fruitful, that is, when children do not learn and when they are exposed to the appalling conditions we are told are common in public schools, we greatly harm liberty and education.

What Mr. Stossel says is true: when government and education bureaucrats take responsibility for educating your children, they take on immense responsibility. Given the results of public education in recent years as written about on this website (see Lack of Literacy is Threat to Liberty, Schoolchildren Will Be Basically Proficient, and Class Warfare, for example), it is beyond belief to realize how vehemently politicians, education bureaucrats, and teachers unions insist on retaining control over education.

It is vitally important that parents be put back in control of the education of their children. Being able to freely choose where their children attend school is the first step. That means eliminating all public schools and government involvement in education. I don’t think that will happen, though, so the next best step is to empower parents through vouchers to select where their children will go to school.

Vouchers and the competition they foster will be good for all schools. Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found that in Milwaukee, the public schools improved in response to competition from voucher schools. This was in a school system where about only 15% of the schoolchildren were eligible for vouchers:

From 1998-1999 onwards, the schools that faced the most competition from the vouchers improved student achievement radically — by about 0.6 of a standard deviation each year. That is an enormous, almost unheard-of, improvement. Keep in mind the schools in question had had a long history of low achievement. Yet they were able to get their act together quickly. The most threatened schools improved the most, not only compared to other schools in Milwaukee but also compared to other schools in the state of Wisconsin that served poor, urban students.

Milwaukee shows what public school administrators can tell you: Schools can improve if they are under serious competition.

Competition is magically wonderful and powerful. It motivates people to dream of doing things once thought not possible. Some fear competition because they think it means that we must all work harder, that we must work longer. But that’s not always the case. Competition means that businesses or schools or government agencies must serve the interests of their customers because the customers have choice. It doesn’t always mean working harder. It might mean changing just a little — or sometimes a lot — to offer what the customer really wants.

What competition means, and we can be sure of this, is that we can’t be sure of the future. Instead of government bureaucrats planning our futures for us and our children, feeding us the same things that didn’t work yesterday, we would face a future of uncertainty. That is frightening, sometimes. But it holds a lot of promise. As Mr. Stossel writes:

I can’t tell you about all the wonderful schools that would appear if students were able to bring their public funding to any school, public, private, or religious. No one individual can begin to imagine what competition would create.

He is absolutely correct. We simply do not know what would happen if the entrepreneurial creativity of America is put to work. There are some small examples: private schools, charter schools, and other semi-public experiments. But even charter and magnet schools are under the control and influence of the existing education and political establishment. They aren’t truly free, and therefore don’t benefit from all the benefits of innovation.

Some fear that unleashing free market forces on education and letting experiments happen will expose some children to schools that don’t work. That’s undoubtedly true. In Milwaukee some of the charter schools have closed for various reasons. The failure of these schools means that market forces — competition, in other words — works. Bad schools lose students and close. That doesn’t happen in the world of government. The children that had the misfortune to attend these poor voucher schools could have done better in other schools. But today children attend failing schools that slog on forever, and they don’t have any opportunity to escape.

That is what we must work to change: children trapped in schools that doom them to failure.

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