Acton Commentary

Vouchers Spur Public Schools to Compete


Competition is, in some circles, a much-derided word. Psychologists worry about the effects competition has on the mental and emotional health of children. Others become concerned when a parent takes competition too far, and fights break out at hockey or soccer games. Yet competition is, as Cicero observed, not about crushing one’s opponent. Rather, healthy competition is a tool by which all are raised to a higher standard. When companies truly and fairly compete, product quality improves, cost declines, and consumers, executives, and laborers all benefit. The same is true when schools compete.

Imagine that residents of a particular neighborhood paid a market tax each year, and with this tax, their neighborhood market procured foodstuffs. When neighborhood residents shopped at this market, the foodstuffs that they acquired were “free” (in reality paid for by their market taxes). The only downside of this system was that the quality of the foodstuffs, while generally good, was not the highest possible. Occasionally, wilted lettuce, nearly past-dated dairy products, and other sub-standard items were all that was available on the shelves. Moreover, even when the items were of good quality, they lacked variety. Rarely were there any new or exotic items, and rarely was sufficient quantity available.

Now imagine that a new supermarket opened down the block. It charged for its goods and services and was not subsidized by any tax. The quality was always high: dairy products, fruits, and vegetables, always fresh. People decided to shop at this store, but were also forced to continue subsidizing the neighborhood market through the market tax. In the end, the only residents able to afford both were the wealthiest residents, or those who chose to sacrifice many other common wants. Everyone else was compelled to shop at the neighborhood market.

What is missing here is a genuine competition between private and public institutions. Neighborhood markets have no need to improve, as their funding remains relatively static, regardless of how many people shop in their store, thereby penalizing the poorer residents and robbing them of their choices. Meanwhile, the wealthier residents, while exercising their choice to shop at the new supermarket, are also penalized by having to pay for groceries and subsidize the neighborhood market they do not use.

In the same way, the current educational system penalizes parents whose children attend private or parochial schools by forcing them to pay twice for their children’s education—once in school taxes, and again in tuition. In addition, it penalizes those who cannot afford to send their children to these private or parochial schools and whose children must therefore continue attending government schools of often-inferior quality. Moreover, it stifles any genuine competition, since government schools, like the fictional neighborhood market, retain their relatively static funding. The injustice of this system should be readily apparent to all those who care about the education of this nation’s children.

The question often asked is does competition, spurred on by vouchers, truly improve schools, or does it just drain public schools of their funding and their best and brightest students? A recent study entitled “Competition Passes the Test”, published in the Summer, 2004 edition of Education Next ( http://www.educationnext.org/20043/66.html ),

demonstrates that competition really does improve schools. The study, based on data from Florida, showed significant improvements in mathematics scores, compared to other government schools, in those schools deemed chronically failing and whose students were therefore eligible to receive vouchers. In addition, those schools threatened with failure and under the possibility of voucher competition posted more modest gains, but still showed improvement in test scores.

While much research remains to be done on the issue of school competition and its benefits, this study is an important step forward in the struggle for parental choice in education. Parents, as first and fundamental teachers of their children, have a “primordial and inalienable right” to choose the school that will educate their children, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us. This right is much more meaningful when parents are armed with vouchers or tax credits, allowing for all parents—not just the wealthy and privileged—to exercise their right to choose.

Competition is not about crushing one’s opponent. It is about using market forces to motivate improvement in quality, cost, and standard of living. John F. Kennedy once said, “all of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talent.” The elimination of the monopolistic government school system and the introduction of fair and equitable competition will allow all of our children, regardless of race, class, or income, the opportunity to develop their talent.