Competition as an Effective Education Reform

By: Nancy Salvato

“You know competition is not for children. It’s not for human beings. It’s not for public education.” Former teacher, Ruth Holmes Cameron

On January 19, 2006, Heartland Senior Fellow George Clowes kicked off the Illinois School Choice Initiative’s monthly Speaker Series on Educational choice. Commencing with the premise that competition plays a very large role in all of our lives, he noted a recurring plot involves the triumph of the underdog; i.e., the American colonists defeated the most powerful nation in the world in 1783 and the women’s suffrage movement succeeded in extending the power to vote to women, though women held no bartering power.

Reminding the audience that public education is charged with educating our citizenry to participate in self government, he quoted Jefferson, “If you want a nation that is both ignorant and free, that is something that never was and never will be.” Because a good education should afford each person an opportunity to participate in the American Dream, education taxes are levied so that generations may acquire the skills necessary to earn a living, knowledge required to sustain a Democratic-Republic, and civility essential to a free society.

A plethora of studies implicate the public schools for failing to provide a good education. The American Institute for Research found U.S. math students at all grade levels were consistently behind their peers around the world. A survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, found only 31% of college students tested as proficient in reading and extracting information from complex material, such as legal documents. In an employer survey from The National Association of Manufacturers, 84% of respondents reported K-12 schools were not doing a good job of preparing students for the workplace; lacking basic employability skills, such as: attendance, timeliness, and work ethic, exhibiting deficiencies in math and science, and in reading and comprehension. Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force found the performance of the U.S. public education system virtually unchanged in the twenty years since the publication of A Nation at Risk. The Knight Foundation found most U.S. high school students don’t understand the First Amendment. Finally, none of the eight education goals (Goals 2000) established by President Bush (41) and 49 state governors were achieved.

Chicago’s Civic Committee of the Commercial Club determined 40 percent of CPS high school students, entering in 8th grade, dropped out by 11th grade. Another 10 percent drop out before graduation, establishing an on-time graduation rate of less than 50 percent. In 2002, of students remaining in 11th grade, 36% in reading, 26% in math, and 22% in science, met or exceeded state standards. Ten years into mayoral control of public schools, the 2005 Urban NAEP Assessment determined only 14% of students read at proficient or above in 4th grade and only 17% in 8th grade. Drawing on his Research Chemist background, Clowes drew parallels to chemistry’s “inhibition effect”, when resources are increased to net a negative effect; and software development’s, “mythical man-month”, adding more manpower to a software development project at some point actually starts to slow the project down and makes it take longer because of the increased complexity of the internal communications required to keep the project moving forward. Both suggest increasing money and manpower, the hours of the school day, or calling for universal preschool is not the way to solve education problems.

According to Milton Friedman, government involvement in the education delivery system is unnecessary; better to distribute tax dollars to parents to spend at qualified educational institutions, public or private, secular or religious (the way Pell grants and federal day-care grants are set up). The nation has over 50 years of experience with GI Bill vouchers for higher education. Voucher programs have operated successfully in Vermont and Maine for a hundred years. Milwaukee’s Voucher students graduate at higher rates (64%) than students enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools (36%). More importantly, public schools improved as a result of voucher school competition. Another benefit of 15% of Milwaukee’s student body enrolled in choice schools is taxpayers save an estimated $50 million a year. Success stories abound where vouchers are permitted. In 2002, the US Supreme Court ruled parents choosing to use vouchers at religious schools does not violate the establishment clause of the federal constitution, however, that hasn’t stopped teacher unions from fighting every new voucher or choice program. Using political clout, they offer campaign contributions to candidates who oppose school choice and when proven unsuccessful, they fight in the courts. Because the union believes that the public schools should maintain their monopoly over public education, they oppose reforms which don’t provide money or manpower in the public schools.

Reformers can fight back by bringing lawsuits against the public schools for failing to provide an adequate education or filing anti-trust lawsuits to create competition. Although choice reformers are the underdogs in this education revolution, history proves the power of right is a potent motivator against might. Without a doubt, if enough people join the Illinois School Choice Initiative in the movement to systemically expand school choice, Illinois graduates will access the American Dream and our nation’s freedom will be maintained through a properly educated citizenry.

Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2006

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