Here’s Why Competition Doesn’t Work in Public Education

If you are (1). interested in public education and (2). living with an Internet connection, you’re likely to already know that North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature has passed a TON of new legislation in the past few weeks that have educators more than a little riled.

(See here for a quick primer)

I’ve spent some time reading the comment sections of education stories appearing in the local newspaper (see here) and the strand that seems to resonate the most with readers is the suggestion that introducing competition to the public education system — achieved here in North Carolina through vouchers and charter schools — is the only way we can kick start stalled schools.

That’s a common refrain in thinking around education here in the States, isn’t it?  We automatically believe that because competitive risk — having to stand out in a marketplace by constantly producing better products — moves businesses forward, the same strategies will move schools forward too.  To suggest otherwise is seen as downright Un-Amurican.

So let’s take a close look at how competition works and then decide if it really IS right for schools.

When businesses compete, their first step is to identify the marketplace that they are trying to serve.  Their second step is to figure out just how much money they have to spend in order to make a profit in that marketplace.  Profitable businesses spend just enough to keep their primary marketplace happy.  Spend more than you need to and you are essentially giving profits away.  Spend less than you need to and you won’t carve out a space in the marketplace that you are trying to serve.

Here’s a practical example of what that looks like in action:  My wife and I bought a new refrigerator a few months back.  To be honest, we were blown away by the full range of refrigerators available in the local Home Depot.  There were stainless steel units with huge capacities, interesting configurations, and four different types of ice dispensed automatically standing alongside basic units made from cheap plastic, ready to do little more than freeze your cheese.

You see the competitive lesson there, right?

Real-live apple-pie eating, baseball loving American businessmen are trying to carve out a space for themselves in SPECIFIC markets, producing refrigerators for certain KINDS of customers.  Some — like Subzero — are producing high end refrigerators for people who own $500,000 homes and are ready to drop a few grand on top end appliances that will serve as centerpieces in their kitchens.  Others — like Kenmore — don’t even bother with the bells and whistles, instead focusing their attention on developing functional-but-not-fancy machines for people like you and I.

And then there’s guys like Joe — the landlord who showed up in my driveway when he noticed the delivery truck bringing our new refrigerator to our house.

Hey — have you got an old unit you’re trying to get rid of?  I’d be happy to take it off your hands,” he said.  I told him that he wouldn’t want my refrigerator.  It was 20+ years old, had been sitting unplugged in my backyard for about two weeks, had been rained on three times, and barely kept anything cold anymore.

That don’t matter,” he said.  “I rent houses out in the poor section of town.  As long as it blows a little cool air, those people will be happy.  I’ll give you $50 bucks and haul this thing away right now.”

Joe has figured out competition, hasn’t he?  He’s identified a marketplace — “those people in the poor section of town” — that no one is serving.  Then, he’s figured out just how much he has to spend to keep his customers happy.

He’s not putting Subzero machines in his rental houses — heck, he’s not even putting WORKING machines in his rental houses — because his customers wouldn’t expect those machines to begin with.  Turning a profit means putting the cheapest refrigerators that he can find into his properties in the poorest corners of town.  He would never slip a rotting machine in a home that he planned to rent to you or I, but he’s not renting homes to you or I.  He’s renting them to people who are down on their luck.

Cheap and crappy will do just fine.

The capitalist in me sees nothing wrong with Joe’s choices, y’all.  While I feel bad for the people living in his homes, the refrigerators owned by other people aren’t something that I’m ready to lose sleep over.  We really DO live in  dog-eat-dog world where, for a variety of reasons, some people are going to get ice sliced and diced while other people are stuck struggling to make ice at all.  Whether we like it or not, that’s life. It’s not society’s job to make sure that everyone has the refrigerator of their dreams.

Translate that lesson to schools, though, and competition gets ugly.

If we REALLY encourage competition in education — if we really ARE committed to letting private companies drive our public school systems — businessmen will bring those same profit-making practices to our communities.  Tapping into an affluent marketplace with a ton of disposable cash to burn, some entrepreneurs will develop Subzero schools with all the bells and whistles.  There will be small class sizes, highly skilled teachers, and a heaping cheese-load of resources spilling out of every classroom storage closet.

But make no mistake about it:  The entrepreneurs developing schools for “those people in the poor section of town” will take Joe’s approach to making a buck.  Their buildings will be stocked with cheap supplies and unqualified teachers. The only thing spilling out of their classrooms will be kids.  Like the good businessmen that they are, they’ll stick worn out Kenmores into poor communities — cutting their expenses to the quick regardless of the quality of the product they are producing because they know full well that the marketplace they are serving into can’t afford anything better.

You DO see the problem with this approach to education, don’t you?

While the quality of other people’s refrigerators doesn’t affect ME in a deep and meaningful way, the quality of their education most certainly does.  Ensuring that ALL children — including “those people living in the poor section of town” — have access to Subzero schools means ensuring that ALL children will grow up to be competent citizens capable of making positive economic and social contributions to our communities.

That’s an outcome we should ALL care about — capable neighbors really DO fuel economic growth and ensure a healthy future for everyone — but it’s an outcome that competition doesn’t automatically advance.

#nuffsaid

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 Related Radical Reads:

Living a Silent War

Staffing High Needs Schools

What Parents Don’t Understand About High Poverty Schools

Lessons Learned from the LeBronathon

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