Competition Is Not The Answer To Everything

The Michigan state legislature is currently mulling a substantial financial bailout for Detroit Public Schools. If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that this aid is sorely needed. Schools in Detroit are physically falling apart. Students aren’t safe. Teachers are falling ill.

But don’t worry, education expert Betsy DeVos has an alternative solution!

I wish sarcasm translated better to text.

Ms. DeVos has joined the chorus of education “experts” who feel that all of the problems with our nation’s public schools can be solved with the magic bullet of competition.

Look, competition can be a good thing in some areas of life. Business pour money into product development hoping to gain new customers. We generally get better products as a result. Sports teams compete all the time, and it’s wildly entertaining.

But there’s one undeniable fact of competition, one that the education reform crowd always seems to ignore.

When two entities compete, one always loses.

This is fine if we’re talking about a couple of college basketball teams. This is not a game we should be willing to play when it comes to our children. The math just doesn’t work out. Forcing schools to compete for students and funding would probably work out great for districts that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would remain wealthy and continue to achieve. And some students will be left behind.

But what about school choice? Comes the reply.

Again, great for districts and schools that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would attract more students, and would no doubt change some lives. But many students would inevitably be left behind at their old schools, and the gap in the quality of education children receive would widen.

Look at this on a small scale. District A markets itself as a home for school of choice students. It offers a diverse curriculum, rich in the arts, filled with opportunities for students to create and grow. Thanks to the state funding that comes in with each student, District A’s budget grows with each student it attracts. District A is able to continue offering a fantastic curriculum, and the cycle continues.

Districts B and C are neighbors of District A. They were a little slow in adding programs to their curriculum, so they lost students, and thus lost money. Class sizes grow a little bit, parents continue to be attracted to the offerings of District A. More students leave, funding drops. Districts B and C are forced to cut programs to balance their books, only accelerating their decline. The students and families remaining in Districts B and C watch the quality of education drop. District A wins.

Look at it on an even smaller scale. I teach music. I could choose to foster a highly competitive environment with my 7th and 8th grade band students. Kids would compete for chairs, there would be challenges, all that stuff. Some kids would be motivated to practice more, and would thus win challenges and rise to the top of their section. Students who continue to lose challenges might lose their motivation, their passion, and may eventually leave the music program. Would my bands sound better? Maybe, but I’m not willing to pay that price.

We’re not talking about a battle between Comcast and Uverse for customers here. We’re talking about people willing to gamble with the education of their children. This isn’t something we should accept as a society. Instead, legislators and reformers should be proposing solutions that encourage schools and districts to collaborate. District A has some programs that have been very successful in enriching the lives of students? Great! Here’s some release time for the teachers in District A to share those lessons with teachers in Districts B and C. Everybody wins in that scenario.

Well, except for Betsy DeVos. And I’m okay with that.

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