Competition: The Way to Better Schools

Commentary by Pete du Pont

If our computer industry operated like our public schools, IBM would be the only computer manufacturer, computers would be as big as a house and they would cost $200,000.

Competition makes for a better product, and public schools essentially have no competition. Eighty-two percent of all the money spent on elementary and secondary education comes from our taxes and goes to public schools - which is why almost nine out of every 10 kids go to a public school.

While this situation pleases the teachers unions and school administrators, parents aren't happy. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 94 percent of Americans want significant change in the public education system. In addition, 69 percent want parents to have more control over their children's education. In a poll by the organization Public Agenda, almost six of every 10 parents with children now in public schools said they would send their children to private schools if they could afford to do so. No wonder. Millions of public schools are sub-par, particularly in low-income inner-city neighborhoods where parents generally don't have a choice.

The answer is to end the public school monopoly and let competition emerge. If you want evidence of the benefit of competition, look at what has happened since the breakup of AT&T. Customers now have a choice of long-distance providers, service has improved and prices have gone down. For that matter, look at the improvements in the U.S. Postal Service prompted by competition from Federal Express and UPS. (And just as private-sector competition didn't shut down the Postal Service, it wouldn't shut down public schools.)

If you doubt that competition would improve public schools, here is a real-life example. The Giffen Memorial Elementary School was believed to be the worst public school in Albany, N.Y., so Virginia Gilder, a concerned New Yorker, offered a private school scholarship (90% of the cost up to $2,000 per year for a minimum of three years and a maximum of six years) to any student. The parents of about a third of the students accepted the offer.

The reaction of the Albany school system was instructional. A school spokesman condemned the offer as a political stunt, but the principal and nine teachers were transferred elsewhere in the system, and the school district came up with $125,000 in new funds for books, equipment and teacher training at Giffen. Note that because of union contracts the sub-par principal and teachers could not be fired, but were foisted off on other schools.

As a result of the public school monopoly, schools operate today pretty much the same way they did a hundred years ago, except judging by achievement scores, the students don't seem to learn as well.

When public schooling began in this country, we were an agricultural nation and the schools reflected that. Not many kids work on the farms in the summer or milk the cows in the afternoon, but schools stick to the old schedule. Some people think the school schedule may have something to do with the fact that juvenile crime surges between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Pat Rooney, the Golden Rule Insurance Company chairman who sparked the growing program across the nation of private school scholarships for children from low-income families, has developed an idea for working mothers who want their children to be safe. With his assistance, African-American ministers in four cities recently started "21st Century Safe Haven Schools." These schools operate from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week all year with one teacher, two teacher aides and two volunteers. Through a well thought-out program, one school can provide as many as 120 children with a quality education and more, all at a low price.

That's just one innovative idea coming from the private sector. If elementary and secondary schools had to compete for students, you can be sure they would be devising other innovative approaches not only to keep academic standards high but also to meet the special needs of both students and parents.

One obstacle to competition is a concern about tax money going to schools run by churches. But the tax-funded GI Bill has enabled thousands of Americans to get a college education, many of them at church-related schools or even seminaries. With the money following the student, the wall of separation between church and state is still intact. If that's true with higher education, why not with elementary and secondary education?

Another concern is government interference with church-related schools that get money raised by taxes. Maybe the answer is to fund the GI Bill for Kids with tax credits instead, so government never sees the money.

These concerns likely could be resolved. But what must first be resolved is how to remove the heavy hand of the education bureaucracy, which is barring the door to serious consideration of school competition.