Scott Gibson: School competition
Our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a strong advocate of school choice for kindergarten through 12th grade students by using school vouchers and for-profit charter schools. The basic selling point for school choice is that education will improve through competition. After all, competition in the free economic market has fueled rapid growth of consumer products from computers to pharmaceuticals to Uber rides. Why shouldn’t it work for education?
The truth is, competition does work for education. It has been shaping American education for years. It is not, however, the kind of competition that we think of in the business world, where companies invent products they then protect by patents or corporate secrecy to conquer the market. In education, competition follows the model of the scientific community, a kind of collaborative competition.
In science, researchers compete to make new discoveries, which bring status and prestige. Then they publish these discoveries to share with the scientific community, and other researchers build on that information to learn even more about natural processes. This is how science works. Discover, share, build. And this is how competition works, and should work, in education.
In the McMinnville School District, we have witnessed many successes, including keeping graduation rates high and narrowing the minority student achievement gap. We could not achieve these successes in isolation. Ideas are tried and studied in other districts, other states, other countries. Researchers publish these findings. Conferences are held where everyone from school board members to kindergarten teachers learn about new ideas and winning techniques.
McMinnville, in turn, invites educators from other districts to observe how we do things and why they work. Competitive success is not an opportunity to gain the upper hand over neighboring districts, but to share insights that will help them improve their own performance in a mutually supportive environment. Every school, every district, is competing with one another and with their own past performance to gain better outcomes for kids. This is the kind of competition we should look for in our educational system. Discover, share, build.
My concern with our new education secretary is not her enthusiasm for competition, but the kind of competition she supports. Betsy DeVos spent millions of her own dollars to engineer a dramatic increase in for-profit charter schools in Michigan, betting that charters and vouchers would improve student outcomes. She lost that bet, as Michigan school performance did not get better as the charter schools increased. DeVos is undeterred by failure, however, and now many worry she will try to enact such radical changes nationwide.
The approach of DeVos and for-profit charter school advocates stands the current approach to education on its head. In public education, the mission is to use tax dollars to maximize student achievement. In for-profit charters, the mission is to use tax dollars to maximize profits. You could argue that trying to maximize profits might lead to better teaching, which national experience has not demonstrated. Charter schools need to show superior performance before upending our well-established system of education.
In addition, charter schools often choose the best students and limit admissions to students with disabilities, more costly to educate. A 2012 General Accounting Office study found that nationally, charters had 8 percent students with disabilities versus 11 percent in traditional public schools. About half of charter school officials stated they had insufficient resources to accept disabled students. Public schools do not have the option of turning away disabled students, regardless of the severity of the disability or the costs they incur. Public schools are open to all children.
DeVos’s much-cherished voucher system has also failed scrutiny. In Louisiana, Indiana and Ohio, students suffered declines in achievement scores after the voucher system was instituted. In Louisiana, scores dropped by 8 to 16 percent compared to non-voucher students, even though vouchers were distributed randomly through a lottery. The voucher system fragments education, making it harder to evaluate schools and hold them accountable. It is better to maintain community oversight and funding of a unified public education system than subdivide the system into a horde of disconnected but tax-funded schools.
Public education needs to be held to high standards, and communities must remain involved to see that schools continually improve. Collaborative competition is an important way to maintain improvement. Our schools are not bazaars for making money. Competition among schools should benefit the common goal of educating our kids. It should not benefit the common stock of charter school corporations. The basic question is this: should our children’s education be answerable to the community or to shareholders?
DeVos seems intent on throwing public education under the school bus. This would be a grave mistake. If we roll the dice on quick-fix ideas like for-profit charter schools and voucher systems that have been shown to fail, we could gut our present schools and place in jeopardy the educational achievement of millions of our kids. Let’s not divide for profit. Let’s discover, share, and build.