Acton Commentary

Michigan Schools Prove Competition in Education Works


Competition in education directly benefits schoolchildren. The Detroit Free Press has published a report titled " Schools of Choice: Crossovers reach 26,000, " that supports what free-market advocates have claimed all along.

The findings suggest that children should be the focus of education policy and that school competition serves them best. The article also reports that some members of the education establishment—once opposed to educational freedom of any kind—are now trumpeting public schools’ successes brought about by competition. It is encouraging that those on the left may have reached some common ground with supporters of the free market on this issue.

The Detroit Free Press reports on the current results of a 1996 law enacted by the State of Michigan that allows parents the freedom to choose which public school their children attend regardless of district. The outcome? Students have benefited from improved educational services offered by schools that must now compete with each other. The article lists several examples of how the schools-of-choice law has positively impacted children who were otherwise trapped in failing, often violent, public schools

According to the article, perhaps no example is better than that of the Highland Park School District. Highland Park is a suburb in close proximity to Detroit that took advantage of the new law, attracting more students by offering better services. Highland Park began offering all-day kindergarten, small class sizes, elementary-school science labs, and guaranties of teacher-parent meetings within 20 days of observed student difficulties. Since the law was enacted, more than 1,325 students have come to Highland Park from an outside district. Clearly, because such freedom was afforded to them, these students are leaving schools they feel are not meeting their needs and benefiting from Highland Park’s superior educational environment. Competition is what incentivized Highland Park to create such an environment

Granted, the competition described in the article is limited to public school systems. The findings, though, offer evidence that expanding educational freedom is a good thing for children. This policy could be used as a model to open up further competition in education in other states or even be made to include private schools. Surely, if some parents are attracted to a Highland Park for its science labs, others would be attracted to a Catholic or Jewish school for its moral or religious teachings.

Parents’ ability to choose any type of school for their children is an idea that has come of age. Recognizing this, President George W. Bush’s education plan specifically calls for school choice, or "portability." Under the president’s plan, if public schools fail to meet certain standards for three straight years, a portion of their pupil expenditure is allocated to the parents, who can then send their children to a better school—private or public. By making education funding "portable," the president’s plan offers parents more options in choosing the right kind of school for their children.

More than simply increasing school options, though, the call for competition raises a valid argument: we are morally required to enable those less fortunate to help themselves improve their lives, thus realizing their human dignity. Educational freedom, as illustrated at Highland Park, saves underprivileged children trapped in failing schools. It allows the cycle of poverty to be broken, since a good education is key to self-advancement in life. Educational choice is a vital component in the next phase of welfare reform.

The Michigan State Legislature is to be commended for pushing competition. Michigan’s public schools that have offered their students better learning environments to keep pace with the competition also deserve credit for their hard work. But the 1996 law is not an end-all. Only when there is genuine educational freedom and competition among all schools—private, charter, homeschools, etc.—will children receive the education they deserve

The foundation has been laid, the model proven successful. It is now time to apply what we have learned over a broader scope, for the greater good.