Competition works

John Stossel

3/1/2006 12:05:00 AM - John Stossel

One exciting thing about the free market is that you can't predict what the market will create. Big-government advocates tell you exactly what will happen when their plans work (as if they actually would work!), but we who trust the free market can only say that people will compete and good ideas will win. We don't set out to make all your choices for you, and, not being psychic, we can't predict what decisions you'll make.

Take education. Bureaucrats like to say, you will go to this school, because we said so, and you will be taught according to this program, because we said so and we know best. Those of us with confidence in markets think you could do better deciding for yourself. Neither the bureaucrats nor the freedom lovers can judge what's in your interest better than you can. One big difference is, we know what we don't know, while they think they know everything.

We do know that competition works. It works because it gives people the chance to be creative. Educational experts, freed from the massive regulations that snarl the public schools, can come up with new and better ideas for teaching. Competition works because it gives people incentives to produce -- it inspires them to work constantly at trying to find better ways to please their customers. The bad producers lose their jobs -- but the best ones gain new customers. Bad schools will close and better schools will open.

And the better schools won't all be the same.

I can't tell you about all the wonderful schools that would appear if students were able to bring their public funding to any school, public, private, or religious. No one individual can begin to imagine what competition would create. But because a few experiments in school choice have been allowed, I can tell you about a few of the possibilities:

Some schools now focus on technology, foreign languages, or music; there are charter schools that operate as boarding schools. At the KIPP charter schools, teachers must give kids their cell phone numbers, and in the evening, every teacher is available to answer questions until 9 p.m. The students call "constantly," say teachers. KIPP kids are in school until 5 p.m., some Saturdays and for weeks in the summer.

So many students want to get into charter schools like those, many have to hold lotteries. The winners get a shot at a better future; the losers are generally stuck with whatever the bureaucrats deign to give them. Why should kids have to win their future possibilities in a lottery? If school money were attached to individual students in the form of vouchers, every parent could take their child to new schools.

This winter's Florida court ruling against school choice came after former teacher Ruth Holmes Cameron brought a suit. "To say that competition is going to improve education -- it's just not going to work," she said. "You know, competition is not for children. It's not for human beings, it's not for public education."

Why not? Would you keep going back to a restaurant that served you a bad meal? Or a barber that gave you a bad haircut? Competition makes everything better. Why would schools be different? In the few places where vouchers have been allowed, like Milwaukee, the kids who used vouchers did better, and those who stayed in the public schools were not left behind.

How can that be? In 2001, Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found that Milwaukee's private school vouchers made the nearby public schools (which were competing for the same students) change. "[Public] school principals were allowed to have a lot more autonomy," she said, "They counseled teachers out of teaching altogether who really weren't performing or showing up on the job -- they put in new back to basics curricula in some primary schools that really needed that so that reading skills and math skills would go up." Test results at those public schools went up by 7.1 percent in math, 8.4 percent in science, and 3.0 percent in language. Scores went up in voucher schools, too.

Competition worked -- for human beings, and for public education.

Note to readers: Last week, I said New York teachers had agreed to a "uniform" six-hour, 50-minute day, a "concession" that lengthened their workday by a measly 10 minutes. In fact, it's not "uniform": Different schools are using the additional time to stretch their schedules different ways.