Choice and Competition in Education: Guaranteed to Fail Our Students

Many critics and reformers of the current education system favor the idea of competition and choice as the savior of our perceived failing public schools. Even though many of their claims that attack the current system are unfounded, I find it more disheartening that they seem to forget who really loses in an education system that touts free-market policy solutions. While there is much more to cover than I’m going to here, I’ll only address the two prevailing topics in the competition and choice debate: merit pay and charter schools.

In a piece by The Atlantic titled “Why Are Teachers Dissatisfied with Their Jobs,” salary is not even mentioned in the author’s explanation of the new MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. Instead, the survey reveals that class size, job security (this survey came at around the time of a budget crisis) and lack of support services are the leading culprits for teachers leaving the profession, with no mention of how much teachers make. As a teacher for the past 13 years, this doesn’t surprise me at all. We don’t get into this profession for the money.

So if money is not the issue, then why is “merit pay” even a talking point for some of the reformers? It seems the neoliberals and their unlikely conservative allies feel that teachers should be paid for how good they are, and the only way we can determine that, according to them, is through test scores. While basing merit pay on test scores comes with many unintended consequences, there is one consequence that stands above the rest. If our goal is to ensure that all students get a great education, then pitting teachers against each other for better test scores will only ensure that a select group of students receive the best lesson. For example, if I have a lesson that gets great results, then what’s my incentive for sharing this with other teachers if my pay is predicated on doing better than them? Teaching is collaborative, and merit pay only disrupts this vital piece of the puzzle that is student learning. When teachers compete instead of collaborate, students lose.

This is the same when we apply it to school choice and the for-profit charter school movement. Charter schools are important, and historically have been a place for educators to be innovative, while also collaborating with their partner district school to share what is working. Today, however, most charters are considered public school competition, highlighting a system that reluctantly works together, if at all.

It’s evident that capitalism and competition are systems that bring out the best in many industries. Free markets have given us the iPhone, the dollar menu, affordable cars, and many other 1st world problems that we enjoy. It also weeds out the bad, keeping crappy products from becoming acceptable. The reformers want us to believe that this holds true in education as well: free-market policies in education will create competition, allowing the best to rise to the top, while driving out the bad. However, the bad never really gets driven out; it becomes a school for children. To believe in a competitive educational system is to believe in winners and losers when it comes to ensuring our children get a good education. Therefore, if you’re for competition and choice in education, then you’re okay with a portion of our kids “losing.”

I’m not okay with this. It’s one thing if Joe’s Widget Factory closes because he sells crappy widgets. He’s an adult who knows how a free-market works, and he pays the consequences as much as he would reap the benefits. That’s how it goes. But a child doesn’t make the decision of whether or not they’re going to choose the better school, their parents do. If parents can’t get their kid to the premier school because of transportation, or the parents don’t care, or the child doesn’t have parents to advocate for them, or they’re homeless, or… then that kid gets a crappy education, and the system of choice has just failed him or her. The point is that we can’t knowingly create losers in a system that serves our children. We must serve them all with the best education they deserve. That means funding all schools well enough to have the resources, social services, support, and job security that research suggests will stabilize the teaching profession.

To prove that we can effectively fund our schools for all children, all we have to do is look at our military. Our soldiers are inexcusably underpaid, yet we have the funding for resources that allow our US armed forces to be considered the most powerful and skillfully trained military in the world. How could this be? Did we privatize it? No. We made it a priority. As a country, we care about it. This could be the same in education. We just need to care enough so that teachers have the resources they need to make sure all students have a good education. 

I agree that we need better ways to compensate our best teachers, and it should certainly include their ability to collaborate and impact classrooms other than their own. But we can’t throw our nation’s children to mercy of a free-market system, because that will guarantee that we’ve failed, even if it’s just a small portion of our kids. We already know how to be the best. We just need to care about it.