Competition Confusion

“High school is now the front line in America’s battle to remain competitive on the increasingly competitive international economic stage.”

2005 National Education Summit on High Schools

“Overall achievement in South Carolina – and in much of our region – continues to lag behind the country as a whole. We have made gains in student performance in recent years, but that won’t meet the competitive challenge we face from schools in other states and nations. “

South Carolina Superintendent of Education Jim Rex

 “We must help our students do better with logic, reasoning, debate, problem-solving, as well as interpersonal and personal responsibility skills. We must help them learn how to be cooperative and competitive in today’s global economy.”

-Sheila Gallagher, President, South Carolina Education Association

And all this time we thought that Jim Rex hated competition.

Riddle us this: how to do you turn out “competitive” students from public schools that are protected from ever having to compete?

Orange County Superior Court judge James Gray addresses this critical issue in the following article.

“Competition makes better schools”

by James P. Gray

The first time I met Dr. Milton Friedman, I heard him talking informally about the general failures of our “government schools,” those run as virtual monopolies by the government.
In their place, Friedman recommended we use a system of vouchers in which parents could spend money the government allots for children’s education at their school of choice. The schools chosen would be required simply to satisfy certain minimum standards set forth by the appropriate governmental unit.
Having been a product of the public school system and having been raised by parents who strongly supported public education, I said I was concerned this approach would undermine public education. He responded with two questions:
“If you were the parent of college-age students, to which country would you send them to receive the best education possible?” My response was that it was probably the United States. He agreed.
The second question: “If you were the parent of high school-age students, to which country would you send them to receive the best education possible?” I said was unsure, but it probably was not the United States.
He agreed again. Then he said the reason for this result was that we may choose where we spend our money with our colleges and universities, but not with high schools; the government makes those decisions for us. We have competition among colleges, but not high schools. From that moment, I have supported school choice.
So we should take steps for decisions about the education of our children to be made as locally as possible. Parents, local schools and support groups like the PTAs should be able to say how and where to spend money for students’ education. The federal government should have no say whatsoever in these matters. Similarly, the states’ decision-making powers should also be curtailed severely.
What will happen with a system like this? Underperforming schools will start losing students to those schools meeting or exceeding parental expectations. So the failing schools will either improve, or go out of business or be taken over by others who will adopt better methods.
In other words, competition among schools will enforce responsibility for results, which will bring quality instruction, innovation and success.
Under school choice, if your child is not interested in preparing for a university-trained career, but would be successful with a career in the performing arts, you as the parent would have the choice to use your child’s educational funds to pay for that type of schooling. The same would be true for other marketable skills like industrial arts, computer programming or nursing.
So why can’t the government schools perform as well as the schools forced to compete? Because conceptually the government schools are funded from the top down — their funds come from the government. There is no competition for the money. In that system, the administrators have a natural tendency to funnel more of the money toward administration. The better teachers see this and seek promotions into administrative positions for the higher pay.
In addition, once they are established, bureaucracies naturally tend to make more and more rules for the schools to follow, which, in turn, justifies more of their bureaucracy. If you want proof, just find a copy of the Education Code for the State of California, which is the largest code of statutes in the state.
To further hammer home this point, look at the schools in our nation’s capital. Out of the 100 largest school districts in our country, Washington, D.C. ranks third in what it spends for each student — $12,979. But of that money, 56% is spent on administration, and the government schools are of notoriously poor quality.
But parental choice is conceptually the reverse of government schools. This system funds the schools from the consumer upward, just as in any other competitive business. So if the consumers are not satisfied, they will take their business elsewhere. And parents learn fast which schools are working and which are not. Therefore, I believe that most of our state’s Education Code should be repealed. That would give local school districts the liberty to formulate and follow their own rules, again within certain minimum standards.
Of course, this is a complicated area, and there are going to be problems. For example, should all students be allocated the same amount of money for their education? No, disabled children would probably be allocated larger amounts, within reasonable limits.
In addition, as students get older, they usually require more funding for things like chemistry labs, foreign languages and higher mathematics training, so each grade level might receive different funding. But all students in each grade level would receive the same allotment. So will the wealthy have access to better education? Yes, but that has been and always will be true. No system can change that reality.
Another problem area is that if schools must perform, they might be susceptible to “teaching for the test,” in order to show the parents that their children are achieving. But in reality, we already have this problem.
The final perceived problem area is that many people fear that the parents of the economically poor students will not care enough to find and utilize the better schools. That may be true for some, but not for most. When different “gate” school opportunities have been available to parents in the poorer economic areas, many parents responded by camping out for days so they could obtain those special positions for their children.
School choice programs are working today in Milwaukee and have been for 15 years. So today a student in Milwaukee can receive a quality “public education” from government, independent or religious schools. Failing schools have been closed, and more than half of the public schools’ 90,000 students attend classes that did not even exist in their current format 15 years ago.
As a final point, parents choosing to use their allotted money to pay tuition for their children at a religious school is no more a violation of the separation of church and state than veterans of our armed forces using their GI benefits to go to a religious college. Why? Because it is the individual people who are spending the money, not the government.


JAMES P. GRAY is an Orange County Superior Court judge and author of the book, “Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It — A Judicial Indictment Of The War On Drugs.” He can be reached at jimpgray@sbcglobal.net or at his blog site at www.judgejimgray.com.

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