The late Walt Disney made a name for himself, and a fortune, by excelling in fields crowded with other high performers: cartooning, publishing, filmmaking, marketing, and storytelling. “I have been up against tough competition all my life,” Disney once said. “I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”
There’s nothing perfect about competition. It’s exhausting, sometimes frustrating, often messy. There are no guarantees. Still, competition usually drives cost down and quality up. Its absence usually leads to trouble.
Those of us who advocate educational freedom bring a variety of assumptions and objectives to the cause. We don’t all make the same arguments and favor the same policies. What we share is a common belief that students will receive a better education when their parents are empowered to make choices among competing alternatives.
Our belief is based on common sense and personal preference. Few of us would prefer to live in a community where there’s only one place to buy our groceries or clothing, one restaurant to get a bite, one channel to watch, one doctor to visit, or one lawyer to hire. We want multiple options because that makes it more likely we’ll find one to our liking. We want multiple providers competing for our business.
If the case for educational freedom were predicated solely on this personal belief, though, we’d be inviting the argument that there’s something unique about schooling, something that makes competition harmful in education even if it’s helpful in other sectors.
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on supposition. We know from practical experience that educational choice is commonplace and popular. North Carolina has had charter schools for a quarter of a century and school vouchers for nearly a decade. Other states have had school-choice programs in place for longer than that. Ever-increasing numbers of parents happily exercise these options, just as even larger numbers happily use their government grants or subsidized loans to patronize competing preschools, colleges, and universities.
Other countries also have education systems that feature parental choice and tax funding for private alternatives. Some 90% of 15-year-old students in Hong Kong attend privately managed schools, as do about three-quarters of 15-year-olds in Belgium, two-thirds in Britain and the Netherlands, 42% in Australia, 39% in Korea, and 31% in Japan.
In theory, this could all be a waste of resources — or worse. But there is a large and growing body of research suggesting otherwise. Whether privately run schools are consistently better at educating students is not really the key question, by the way. What matters most is whether increased competition — among public schools at least, and within a broader market of options at most — tends to make schools more effective and students and their families better off.
A study published in the latest issue of the journal Education Next found such benefits from the robust school choice available in Florida. “Students enrolled at local public schools with more market competition from nearby private or parochial schools,” they wrote, “earned higher scores in reading and math and were less likely to be absent or suspended from schools.”
Another new study focused on a Los Angeles initiative in which parents were given more choices among public high schools. The authors concluded that the increased competition “boosted student outcomes markedly, closing achievement and college-going gaps.” They found that Los Angeles parents placed great weight on academic quality when making choices, creating “competition-induced incentives” for schools to improve their effectiveness.
Some of the scholarly support for the value of school competition comes from right here in North Carolina, where researchers have found that proximity to charter schools tends to boost the performance of students who continue to attend district-run schools, though the effects vary in size and scope.
I know that vociferous critics of choice are unlikely to find such evidence persuasive. Nor is the academic literature unanimous on the subject. Still, there’s nothing weird about importing competition into education. It’s popular. And it likely improves school quality.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.