Opinion: Daily Journal

Competition Makes Us Better

I got my first lesson in competition when I was a 12-year-old first baseman on a softball team. For years I’d been the only girl able to snag wild throws that regularly sent the ball careening toward the dugout. But then a new girl — a very athletic girl — showed up to join my team. Her powerful swing trumped my long arms and legs.

My coach didn’t sugarcoat things: I wasn’t entitled to first base, and I’d better work on my skills if I expected to play. First, I got mad. Then I got scared. Finally, I got busy. It was hard, but when I saw my name on the starting roster, I realized competition had made me a better player.

That life lesson as a child grounds my belief in the power of competition to make people better at what they do, and products and services better at what they deliver.

The magnificent artists Pablo Picasso and Henry Matisse illustrate this truth. As Inc. magazine recently put it, their rivalry “shows us how competition can be both inspiring and productive.” Each wanted to be the one who revolutionized the definition of art. Picasso reportedly told a biographer, “No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”

Their competitive relationship was so fascinating and inspirational that the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a special exhibition to their work and story. We have competition to thank for some of the most wondrous masterpieces the world has ever seen.

Competitive forces are also at work in professional sports — off the field. ESPN has essentially been the only game in town for decades for sports geeks. But in August, Fox Sports 1 debuts in roughly 81 million homes. Not coincidentally, ESPN began streamlining operations earlier this year. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the changes are underway in order for ESPN to become “more competitive, innovative, and productive.” ESPN President John Skipper, who reportedly is trying to fend off employee defections, is facing his competition head-on. “We at ESPN like competition. It makes us better. It makes us sharper,” Skipper said.

Competition has the power to broaden educational horizons for children as well, but you’ll have no luck getting North Carolina’s education establishment to embrace it. They view competition as a threat, railing against efforts by legislative leaders to infuse education with new, better options to meet the varied needs and interests of children and parents.

These forces won the argument for decades in our state, fighting mightily against public charter schools, for example. Last legislative session, however, new leadership in the General Assembly refused to be held back any longer, eliminating the arbitrary 100-school cap on charters.

This session, the education establishment has circled the wagons against opportunity scholarships. Scholarships, or vouchers, have been proposed as a way to give kids from low-income families access to private or religious schools. In the first year, a $4,200 scholarship would be available for children who qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. In the second year, income eligibility would increase to “not in excess of one hundred thirty-three percent (133%) of the amount required for the student to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.”

In other words, the door of opportunity would be opened for low-income kids. Still, the North Carolina Association of Educators rejects opportunity scholarships.

“I think that it’s really, in the long run, going to benefit those parents and families who can already afford to send their students to private schools,” said Rodney Ellis, president of NCAE in a recent interview with N.C. Policy Watch. “And I just think it’s unfair to taxpayers that their money will be used in that manner. I think it’s unfair to the students in public schools whose resources will be significantly reduced. I just think it’s not in the best interest of public education and students in North Carolina.”

In reality, the opposite is true.

In “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice,” released in April, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice reviewed school choice research. “Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools, and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.”

How much longer will we allow entrenched special interests to block opportunity and progress? Competition makes us better, whether the dynamic plays out on a softball team, in the art world, in the boardroom, or in a North Carolina classroom.

Donna Martinez co-hosts Carolina Journal Radio and blogs at “Right Angles.”