Choice and competition: It’s the American way

EDITOR’S NOTE: An edited version of this piece appeared as a letter to the editor in the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday, July 19, 2014.

School choice often engenders controversy. From districts arguing amongst themselves about the impact of open enrollment to charter schools and districts squabbling over funding and facilities, the Buckeye state—a national leader in providing education options to parents—is no stranger to the debates that arise about school choice.

In a July 8 editorial (“The law is the law”), the Columbus Dispatch called out two Ohio districts for allegedly circumventing public-records laws in order to prevent families from knowing about their school-choice options. The editorial drew attention to a current lawsuit brought by School Choice Ohio (SCO) against Cincinnati Public Schools and Springfield City Schools. Dispatch editors wrote, “Public schools understandably want to avoid this [losing students to private schools], but they should fight against it by making their schools safer and more effective—not by scheming to prevent families from knowing about their options. Scheming in defiance of state law would be even worse.”

That sums it up quite nicely. The legal and ethical implications of Cincinnati’s and Springfield’s actions are clear: hiding voucher eligibility from students and their families, many of whom are stuck in failing schools, isn’t just dishonest, unfair, and shameful—it’s also illegal. But the most compelling part of the Dispatch’s argument is that if public schools don’t want to lose students to other schools, they must work to become better schools themselves.

The competition that public schools face is one mechanism that drives them to improve. Common sense and experience tell us that competition brings out the best in us. As a former college soccer player and coach, I know the athletic version well: if you’re not in the starting lineup and you want to be, you work to become better and earn your spot. The same logic exists in business: if competitors are schooling your company, then you’d get better and draw in more customers. Think of the hyper-competitive smartphone market, where innovation and constant improvement are absolutely essential. The result for consumers is a wide variety of choices, ever-expanding features, lower costs, and stronger performance, all driven by competition.

Americans love to compete and to win. We understand the benefits of competition in other realms of our lives. So why are we hesitant to let it work in education? Perhaps it’s because choice opponents have repeatedly asserted that competition in this realm will lead to losers as well as winners and that we can’t afford to allow students to lose out on a quality education. But the fault in this reasoning is that consumers (students) benefit when schools compete to be the best. The only “losers” will be the schools that fail to meet the needs of parents and students—as it should be. Even those schools will likely raise their level of performance in the face of competition (and could end up, consequently, as winners). Competition is not a zero-sum game.

Don’t take our word for it, though. A 2013 study published by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, entitled A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, examined twenty-three empirical studies of private-school voucher programs and found that in twenty-two cases, the presence of choice improved the academic outcomes of public schools that were affected by it. (The other study found no negative impact.) This has played out in Ohio, too. A study of the EdChoice Scholarship program by Matthew Carr, the same program that Cincinnati and Springfield have tried to circumvent, showed that schools whose students were eligible for vouchers made greater year-to-year test-score improvements than schools that were not eligible for vouchers. In other words, public schools can (and often do) improve as a result of competition from private schools.

The bottom line is that school choice improves academic outcomes for kids by injecting healthy competition into the education system. It’s time for districts to embrace competition, not shy away from it. After all, not only is it the American way, but our students stand to benefit.

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.