If a number of people stop eating at McDonald’s and start patronizing Burger King, no one suggests those who still go to McDonald’s will suddenly get a lower quality of food.
Likewise, if women who gave birth to their first-born children at Piedmont Hospital switch en masse to Northside for their next deliveries, no one frets that Piedmont’s doctors and nurses will somehow be incapable of caring adequately for their remaining patients.
On the contrary, one would expect any company losing business to a competitor to redouble its efforts to improve itself and attract customers. We see that happen again and again in our everyday lives.
So why do we think of schools any differently?
When it comes to schools, we not only hear the education establishment slander their would-be competitors as soulless, money-grubbing, fly-by-night ne’er-do-wells. We hear them say the very fact of competition would doom our traditional public schools to a downward spiral of irreversible helplessness.
If that last bit were true, it would actually be a reason to wipe out public education as we know it. But I don’t think it is.
I don’t think the teachers in our public schools are incapable of adapting to actual competition, though I do think they’re tired of adapting to busywork changes in curriculum and protocols from bureaucrats and lawmakers trying to justify their own salaries.
Nor do I think our principals and superintendents are so dim-witted that they couldn’t navigate the changes they needed to make to respond to competition.
But our public schools system, like a number of vast, entrenched incumbents, does by and large lack the nimbleness to evolve and innovate on its own absent competitive pressures. Some might say it’s had that agility taken away from it after years and years of regulatory and legislative overreach, and I would have a very hard time arguing.
To the extent that’s true, though, there’s another private-sector analogy that shows how useful school choice could be, even to the benefit of the traditional public schools.
Think about which companies in the technology space were the most innovative 20, 30, 40 years ago. And then think about which ones are pushing the envelope now. The two lists in your mind probably don’t have a whole lot of overlap.
Not that all of the companies on the first list have disappeared; far from it. Microsoft, for example, is still a dominant player today, even if its business has been shaped and reshaped by competition. In many ways, smaller companies and the entrepreneurs who start them are de facto innovation labs for the larger incumbents, who watch what works — and then pluck them up or simply adopt their inventions.
Similarly, the creativity and entrepreneurial activity in the education industry right now could change the way even the traditional public schools operate, for the better. All the more so if students can choose to use the public funds allotted to them at some of these new, innovative schools.
A true marketplace doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. But it does require the push and pull that real competition brings.