Choice, Competition and Unintended Consequences

Watching the unfolding campaigns of the presidential candidates I began reflecting, again, on our national education policy. The school choice movement has been a battleground for unions and free market advocates for most of my education career. I personally like having choices, and use the Internet to help research my options when I plan to buy something, including the quality of the product, and the lowest price. When we moved into our new house, for example, my wife and I looked at furniture in all of the local stores. We didn’t see anything we liked so we turned to the Internet. We were able to find exactly what we liked, learned that it was made with quality hardwood, and then were able to shop around until we found sales and discounts on everything we purchased, and it was all shipped for free.

I didn’t have the same experience when looking for education options for my oldest daughter when she moved from middle school to high school. There are a number of charter and private schools in our area, but the ones close enough to meet our commuting needs, did not offer the things we were looking for. Within the Utica Community Schools we did find an option that we liked. It was an International Baccalaureate program that was very student centered, and fostered inquiry. The only problem was that they have high admission standards, so most of the applicants don’t get in, and then the ones that “qualify” are submitted to a lottery process to fill the available seats. I believe about 10% of the applicants are accepted. Unfortunately, we did not make the lottery cut, and wound up in our neighborhood high school, so choice didn’t work for us.

Choice advocates would say that the problem is not that choice is bad, but that there aren’t enough options. I am conflicted about this. I did wish that there was space enough for my daughter in the International Baccalaureate program, but I am also bothered by the fact that my daughter’s neighborhood high school does not provide an education that is student centered or that fosters inquiry. Shouldn’t these be central elements of all secondary school learning environments?

I also question the validity of the choice argument that is often voiced, that choice initiates competition, which improves outcomes. Are choice and competition really the best way to achieve better education outcomes? When I look at high performing countries, like Finland and Singapore, for example, they provide a national curriculum, but virtually all of their students matriculate through a state run system. Is choice the driving factor behind their success?

The republicans have made it clear that choice is the cornerstone of their education policy, and they have many free market allies that are providing leadership, advocacy, policy and financial support to achieve their goals. Famed economist, Milton Freedman, for example, stated more than a decade ago that, “Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go. We are far from that ultimate result. If we had that – a system of free choice – we would also have a system of competition, innovation, which would change the character of education.” Freedman created a foundation before his death dedicated to the educational choice movement.

Even many democrats now are beginning to embrace choice. In 2012 the democratic platform actually called for the expansion of public school options for low income youth. Even Arne Duncan, former democratically appointed Secretary of Education, said in an interview with Joe Scarborough, “We have to make sure every single public school in this nation is a school of choice, so, traditional schools that are doing a great job, we need to replicate them and learn from them. Charter schools that are doing a great job, we need to replicate them and learn from them.”

But is competition always good? Did the competition for a spot in Utica’s International Baccalaureate program make my daughter a better student? Did the competition for a spot spur the development of other similar programs that my daughter could go to? Did our neighborhood high school view the program as competition, and work to change its pedagogy? On all counts it is a resounding “No.”

This drives me to ask the question, “Is choice the systemic answer to improving learning for all students?” Before we answer that question, let’s examine some of the intended and unintended consequences of competition.

Healthy free market competition can yield:

  • Lower costs and prices for goods and services
  • Better quality
  • More choices and variety
  • More innovation
  • Greater efficiency and productivity
  • Economic development and growth
  • Greater wealth equality
  • A stronger democracy by dispersing economic power, and
  • Greater wellbeing by promoting individual initiative, liberty, and free association

These concepts have been studied and have been well documented for more than a century. The basic idea is that each person is the best judge of what is best for him/her, and since our society is the sum of its individuals, the well-being of society as a whole is also maximized.

Although this is true, there are often situations when this concept breaks down. Competition relies on the premise that people know what is best for them, and that they have the fortitude to secure what is best for them. This makes the assumption that parents (and students) know how to find credible information about each school, visit the school, and can figure out a way to transport their child to and from the school of their choice each day.

If choice is going to work to improve learning for all children, however, providing some choices by itself is not going to get us there. Parents will need to be provided with reliable information about type and quality of the various options, and the ability to have their children actually be able to take advantage of the options.

The quality of the current choice options are also in question. Milwaukee, for example, has one of the first and largest choice programs in the country. In a report released by Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction they found that students attending voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine scored lower than public school students in Milwaukee Public Schools and the Racine Unified School District on the state standardized achievement test. Only about 13% of students in the voucher schools scored proficient or better in math and about 11% scored proficient or advanced in reading.

Obviously, choice and competition have not generated the improvements in this situation. That is not to say that there are high performing choice programs, but if we look at the overall outcomes that choice has had on improving student outcomes nationwide, it hasn’t moved the needle. It seems to me that we are facing the same quality issues in charter schools that we face in our traditional public schools, except now we have divided the resources. Again, if choice is going to work as a policy, then the quality of the choices and the consequences for poor quality also need to be addressed.

There is still another concern that needs to be addressed if choice is going to be the dominant education policy going forward. As competition increases, schools feel the pressure to distort or reduce the accuracy of their results. We have already seen examples of this in standardized test cheating scandals. We also run the risk of the schools with the most money winning. As for-profit companies enter the education market, or even in the case of wealthy individuals backing schools with their favored ideology, their marketing force can cloud the judgement of parents when making their choices about the best learning environment for their child. The schools with the deepest pockets have an unfair advantage in the marketplace, with very few controls over their current marketing messages.

I want to reiterate, again, that I like to be able to decide what is right for me and my family. What concerns me deeply is that we have started down a choice policy path that rings true to most people on face value, without an open an honest dialog about a systemic and scalable way to improve the American education system, and meet the individual needs of all learners. We have an opportunity with the upcoming presidential election to examine our education system in depth, and have meaningful debates on both sides of the aisle. If choice be the direction, then let’s use data, and the existing knowledge base to enact it efficiently and systemically, because the laissez faire approach we are currently using is leaving our country with very few winners, and far too many losers.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

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