The best produce in my area is sold at a little shop in a humble, concrete block building. A large grocery-chain store, meanwhile, has the most carefully maintained meat section, and the widest variety of all goods is found at a large national retailer.
All three advertise their special selling points, but also try to keep their prices as low as their competitors’.
Our society appreciates the benefits of competition. In fact, we appreciate the value of competition so much that in many cases the absence of competition is illegal. Antitrust laws assure that no one firm gets so much market share that it can ignore the maxim, “The customer is king.”
Oil and phone service are just two industries where the absence of competition was so objectionable that government stepped in.
The benefits I see from competition for my grocery dollars are numerous. It keeps profits low, enhances specialization, keeps quality high and makes my needs the highest priority for the store operators.
The harms of a monopoly that justify antitrust laws are also numerous. Prices rise, service declines and specialization diminishes.
Why then, do we put such faith in a monopoly approach to education? With few exceptions, our policy is to require students to attend a school based upon their ZIP code. The few exceptions are those with wealth or extraordinarily motivated parents.
Are legislators so clever that they have designed the one-size-fits-all that surpasses all benefits of competition?
Statewide, one in five students drops out. Of graduates who enroll in community college, 57 percent need to retake high school content. One in five 10th-grade students is unable to read at the expected minimum level. For Washington’s fourth-graders, nearly 30 percent cannot read at the “basic” level.
Other flaws of a monopoly are also evident. We spend more money per student today than ever in history, yet our school year is full of partial school days or shorter school years. Levy-funded wage enhancements for school employees are at an all-time high while specialized programs such as art, music, clubs and technology are trimmed back.
If a single large retailer were to have such a monopoly, we would have congressional hearings and a host of policies adopted to incentivize competition.
Wages given priority
Some may believe that schools are different, and in many ways they are. In essential ways, however, school operators are not different. Incentives, motivation and priorities all depend on whether one operates with or without meaningful competition.
For example, schools have no price that can be increased, but the spending priorities differ. For example, my local school cut full-day kindergarten to afford levy-funded wage enhancements for employees. If the school system spreads its “profit” in the form of employee compensation rather than stockholder dividends, is it really any different?
A third of all levy funds statewide are used as wage enhancements for state-funded employees. What service-level reductions have we seen in schools while this trend has been growing in recent years?
Some could suggest that we should protect schools from competition because large schools can offer more variety and efficiency. This is certainly monopoly rationale we wouldn’t tolerate if a large retail chain tried to use it to justify limiting our choice to only its services.
It is true that a large school can offer a debate team and a chamber choir, but how large does a school need to be to do this? Why would they both need to be at the same school? Experience suggests that while a bit more variety can be offered in large schools without competition, it can also be taken away without consequence.
If we want a public school system that provides the most for families, a system that permits those needing specialty services to get them and has true incentive to manage costs and quality, then we should seek a school system rich with competing options.
Jami Lund of Centralia is the Education Reform Fellow for the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Olympia. Email: JLund@myfreedomfoundation.org.