Acton Commentary

The Competitive Edge: Why Choice Will Improve All of America's Schools

The term “school choice” refers to a general principle of parents having the freedom to choose which school would best educate their children in accordance with their own values. School choice can manifest itself in more than one way–through voucher scholarships and tuition tax credits, for instance–to enable parents to choose which public or private school their children will attend. Though the methods may differ, school choice ultimately represents competition among educational providers–something the current system lacks. Instead, a government-imposed monopoly on education now undermines market efficiency and jeopardizes moral instruction, often resulting in substandard schools, especially in poor and urban areas, which all can agree is tantamount to a crisis.

Christians know that freedom is essential to human dignity, as affirmed by St. Thomas Aquinas. School choice alternatives that permit free exchange and association are more in accord with a Christian conception of freedom and the centrality of the parent to their children’s education. It is morally troubling to deny certain people educational choices because the government has set aside their tax dollars exclusively for a public school. As the celebrated thinker Frèdéric Bastiat stated in his classic book The Law , “In creating a monopoly of education, the government must answer to the hopes of the fathers of families who have thus been deprived of their liberty; and if these hopes are shattered, whose fault is it?” At fault is a system of no competition.

The absence of competition is why a government monopoly on education is failing our children. Due to compulsory attendance, government schools rarely need to worry about attracting students, operating efficiently, or being accountable to the public. As long as taxes are being paid, school bureaucracies can count on a constant cash flow. With little accountability, it is no wonder that a significant portion of the budget government school districts spend has little to do with teaching students and a lot to do with bureaucratic administration.

Opening up competition for private and other schools will help remedy this problem. All schools will be forced to become more attractive to students, more cost-efficient, and more accountable if they are to remain competitive. If a school fails to accomplish these goals, students will leave that school and attend competing institutions that provide a better education. This creates the incentive for a school to offer innovative services, quality facilities, and excellent academics, for if it does not, its competitor a few blocks away will certainly land more students. The market has ways of ensuring superior products are rewarded and inferior products weeded out. A competitive marketplace for education would be no different.

School choice leads to competitive education. Citizens paying taxes on the money they earn should have some say about how that money is applied. Vouchers and tax credits allow parents to do just that by using some of the money collected in taxes for tuition at their preferred school. This is consistent with a moral perspective, as Notre Dame Law Professors Nicole and Richard Garnett point out: “The perceived secular and, at times, overtly anti-religious tone of public education requires that these parents pay what is essentially a tax on their religious objections. They pay tuition to a private school in addition to the taxes they already pay to support government schools.” (“School Choice, the First Amendment, and Social Justice,” 2000) Parents of all incomes should have this right to use their money as they see fit–in this case, choosing the best school for their children to attend.

Opponents of school choice often claim that it will destroy the public schools, as they think students will leave for private options. Notwithstanding the pure irony of this argument (in his 1994 book School Choice, David Harmer writes: “If students can’t wait to leave, what does that say about the quality of schools? That is an argument for school choice, not against it. The exodus argument sounds like the old East German regime talking about the Berlin Wall: if we take it down, everyone will leave. Exactly; that is precisely why it should come down.“), studies have shown that competition forces public schools to improve immensely so they can retain their student population. According to World magazine (July 1, 2000), in Florida, where a voucher system has been instituted, even the mere hint at opening competition among schools caused the public schools to seek improvements and become more effective in their academics and administration.

In addition, those who warn that vouchers or tax credits will not cover transportation costs of students need to keep this in mind: a competitive market will invite a number of new schools to open across existing districts. To get the competitive edge, many competing schools will also offer transportation to students who do not live in the immediate area. Options and services increase as the market operates freely.

By denying parents the right to a competitive product, the government system of schools continues to provide low-performing, unsafe, and inefficient schools. Granted, there are many fine public schools in the country that truly prepare children for life with a solid education, but there are just as many that do not, making the case for competition even more sensible. The answer is not pumping more tax money into a command system; the failed socialist experiments of Eastern Europe have proven that no matter how much money is budgeted for a government program, it is the lack of competition that causes such systems to become unaccountable to its forced consumers.

It is time for this unnatural monopoly to be stripped of its exclusive supply of education. Competition through school choice will accomplish just that.