News & Politics

The Competition Fallacy

Americans love competition. But when it comes to education, does the concept really work?

Photo Credit: Dmitriy Shironosov via Shutterstock.com

We love competition in this country. From early on, we are taught that competition in the capitalist marketplace allows the best ideas to emerge, the best-run companies to rise to the top, the best products to reach consumers. That’s a lovely thought, although the U.S. has never practiced pure capitalism (we decided long ago some government regulations were a good idea) and the rise of the 99% has highlighted the staggering problems of income inequality produced by our current system. Yet we love the idea of competition and continue to believe in its simplicity as a guiding principle. It’s part of our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American narrative of individualism; part of our moral fiber.

But the concept of competition does not apply equally to all things. Take public K-12 education. Those promoting privatization efforts such as vouchers and charter schools love to say that public schools will benefit from competition. Monica Allison, the Philadelphia based president of PA Families for Public Cyber Schools, wrote in a letter-to-the-editor [last week] that, “Schools need to be competitive. Choice in education is very good and it breeds competition. Competition in education makes every school step up and provide a quality education.” Oh if only that were true.

We need only look at charter school performance to see the fallacy of “competition.” Only two of Pennsylvania’s 12 cyber charter schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress status last year, and seven have never made AYP at all. (For details on charter school performance, see “Dueling Rallies.”) The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University foundthat students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. That’s a 100% failure rate. Pennsylvania introduced charter schools back in the 1990s – if competition was so good for them, would we not be seeing positive results by now?

The point is that competition as a philosophy doesn’t work when you are talking about our public goods. Let’s consider our public park system as an analogy. Would anyone suggest that we hand half of our public parks over to private corporations to run them as good little capitalist enterprises (think Budwesier signs on the fountain at the Point, oil derricks in North Park, casinos in Gettysburg); then siphon off state funding meant for the parks and hand the money over to those companies; and then tell the remaining public parks they need to manage with fewer resources and “compete” in order to attract visitors?

Actually, some people have suggested just this. But most people realize that our beautiful natural resources are not about increasing someone’s bottom line. They are not even necessarily about attracting visitors (we value remote wilderness for reasons other than its ability to pack in a crowd). We ask our government to own and manage green spaces for us because those places belong to all of us – they exist for the public good – whereas private companies are legally obligated to answer to their shareholders.

Public schools exist for the public good. They benefit not only individual students, but also society as a whole, which requires an educated citizenry in order to function. They are mandated to educate every child in every corner of the state and with every learning need. We are right to insist that our public schools deliver a quality education and work to fix problems where they exist. But the problem is not that our public schools lack competition. It’s that they are being systematically starved of funding.

Last week, Pittsburgh Public Schools announced they would start their own cyber charter school. The district figures its per pupil cost will be $3,500 compared to the nearly $14,000 on average that it is forced (by state law) to send to other cyber charter school operators. Since Governor Corbett cut reimbursements to districts for their charter school payments, right now Pittsburgh is losing $45 million per year for the 3,125 students it must pay to send to those schools. That includes $11 million for 798 students in cyber charter schools.

In a district with about 25,000 students, charter schools have sucked away a small percentage of overall enrollment, but a very large chunk of cash. It is the equivalent of having one or two students leave a classroom of 25, yet the district still has to pay all the costs of educating those remaining 23 kids, with the same teacher’s salary and the same light bill.

Ms. Allison of the PA Families for Public Cyber Schools claimsthat, “districts need to look at where they can do better and compete for students.” We always want our public schools looking at what they can do better, but asking them to compete for students will not make them better. In fact, competition is the wrong guiding principle for public education.

We need to adequately, equitably, and sustainably resource our public schools so they can meet the needs of all our students. Because good public schools are a public good. They benefit all of us.

Originally posted on Yinzercation, June 20, 2012.

Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D., is the ACLS New Faculty Fellow in Women's Studies and History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a historian of working families and social reform and author of the award-winning, Childcare in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages (University of Illinois Press, 2012). She is the founder of Yinzercation, a blog and website for a grassroots public education advocacy movement in Pennsylvania.