Wyoming Liberty Group

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Schools Must Compete

Who ever heard of a football team not improving by competing? Practice makes perfect, but perfect gets better through competition. Competition reveals unknown flaws, generates new ideas and improves execution of old methods. Our K-12 education system needs improvement as Wyoming Liberty Group has written previously. Assuming our schools want to get better, maybe competition is part of the answer.

We know from experience businesses change little and charge as much as the market will bear unless prodded by a competitor. Public K-12 education is little different. It is generally mandatory up to a certain age in the U.S. and is funded by taxpayers. Accordingly, without meaningful competition the education system has no reason to improve and will tend to cost as much as taxpayers can pay. The evidence supports this: test scores have been stagnant in the U.S. while the cost per pupil per year has risen 180% after inflation since 1971, according to Coulsen in State Education Trends (2014).

Competition in K-12 education involves parents exercising their rights to choose how best to educate their children. That requires they have meaningful choices available. Wolf and Egalite (Wolf et al) with the Friedman Foundation write in their paper “Pursuing Innovation, How Can Educational Choice Transform K-12 Education in the US?” there are two broad categories of choice: those within the public system and those outside the public system.

Choices within the public system include Residential and Public School. Residential is the choice a family makes about where to live based on the local school to which they’ll have access. Even though it’s a very expensive option, Wolf et al report that in 2012 twenty percent of public school parents exercised it. Clearly, parents value such opportunity!

Public School choice includes two options, inter-district (between different school districts) and intra-district (within one district but between schools). More than thirty states allow inter-district choice. Seventeen states allow intra-district options. Regrettably, Public School choices, even when available, tend to be constrained through regulation, availability of space in a desired school/district or because districts are so large as to prevent realistic travel times. Wyoming allows neither choice with the exceptions of Natrona County’s intra-district choice model and online-only education via Niobrara SD #1. Also, our school districts have gotten larger over time and long distances between schools are common.

School choices outside public systems include family-paid private schools, publicly-paid private schools (vouchers), homeschooling and charter schools. Wyoming allows all but publicly-paid private schools. However, they tend to not be easily utilized.

Do these kinds of choices create meaningful competition? More importantly, does the competition result in better schools? Wolf et al say the answer to both questions is yes. They cite 42 studies (most published in peer-reviewed journals) by more than 24 researchers across 15 states.

From them, Wolf et al list five major findings: 1) a high likelihood that increased competition tends to improve performance by public schools, 2) modest amounts of competition result in modest improvement in performance, 3) the strongest positive effects were found where the permitted competition was most intense, 4) public systems which allowed competition, but placed significant constraints on it, did not show positive results, and 5) there were no statistically significant negative effects on the publics schools where many students opted out to go elsewhere.

This all appears to confirm the theory that public schools are like monopolies; they have little reason to improve service until prodded to. Once prodded, they react and improve.

K-12 football improves through competition. Why wouldn’t competition benefit other aspects of school performance? The research by Wolf et al indicates there’s much to be gained and little if any downside. Wyoming education is to be the best we can do, according to our Supreme Court, and a spirit of healthy competition can move us to a new future of school excellence.

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Wednesday, 23 August 2017
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