© Can Stock Photo / focalpoint
© Can Stock Photo / focalpoint

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.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Scott Gibson M.D. has practiced medicine in McMinnville, his hometown, since 1989 and has been on the McMinnville School Board since 2011. He is interested in a diverse and seemingly random variety of topics, but his major non-medical interests are photography and writing. He and his wife, Melody, have three children and two grandchildren, hoping for more.

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.


Don Dix

From the article -- "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."

Well Scott, that's how science is 'supposed' to work. But climate scientists such as Michael Mann will not divulge any details as to how he came up with 'the hockey stick graph' showing rapid warming the last half century (which hasn't occurred). Keep in mind that the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age do not register on his graph, yet the temp fluctuated 4 - 6 degrees from the MWP to the LIA -- warmer and colder with respect to today.

Witnessing as I have, the education of our youth has morphed to focus on specialty subjects that have little basic value in the real world.

Students can operate tech equipment (phones, computers, etc.) with ease and confidence, but put a written math test before them and deny the use of a calculator -- it seems the equipment used is more critical to success than actually using the thought process of the mind to solve answers.

In my opinion, competition (between private and public schools)isn't the issue -- it's the structure and form of what is being offered by either.


C'mon. Mr Gibson always has to hand out the dis to any conservative that the out of bounds leftists don't like. Mr Gibson has been writing quite a bit so his rants about public education being screwed by the conservatives is no surprise. There must be at least one "r' or conservative that he agrees with but he never says it. BTW, I have a granddaughter who went through 8 years of a charter school and has done well since graduation from a private college. The 3 years she spent in "the system" for her last three years that she was a poor student (all of a sudden) and found the public indoctrination center boring, easy and developed a flippant attitude. To this day she laughs about the public high school and how it almost derailed her progress towards the great job she has now. Mr Gibson, as a liberal, obviously is not a free choice kind of person. He likes government intrusion.


I agree with both Don's and gophergrabber's comments. Spot on.


Betsy DeVos bought and paid for her new position. (Her huge campaign contributions are public record.) It remains to be seen the extent of damage she will do to our public education system. Of course she DOES have a lot of competition in the "damage potential" category.....Justice, Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection, FDA, Energy, etc.

Elections most certainly do have consequences, we are only beginning to comprehend the cost of America's last one.

Don Dix

treefarmer -- Oregon's entire government has been 'bought and paid for' by the public employees union for over 30 years. The reward for that support is a system of pay and benefits that will eventually bankrupt this state.

Public education in Oregon is a joke. There are 'graduates' of Oregon's system that can't pass an armed services entry test. The primary reason is the 'education dollar' is nearly spent by the time it reaches the classroom. That situation falls squarely on the elected Ds who simply rinse and repeat policy.

Complaining about what might occur with a R in control at the fed level is pure speculation, a partisan opinion, if you will.

If, as you write, 'elections have consequences', when does it register there is no need for speculation concerning Oregon's public education -- the 'damage potential' has been realized --it's been broken for decades.


Scott Gibson strikes again! He is a puzzling man. Heart of gold, kind, highly skilled in his profession, wise in almost every way. His Achilles heel? He's just too far left. This article is a perfect case in point. Ms DeVos is a highly respected expert in her field who has devoted nearly her entire adult life to understanding what makes for successful schools. She is now finally in a position where she can effect some significant positive change in our nations schools. On this issue, I'll trust her over Dr Gibson any day.


I agree with all of the comments. I'd like to add that being from the older generation I don't think it's proper for a school board member going public on politics.


treefarmer, why be so critical? Nothing new in your comments whether it be Democratic or Republican. Your comments just happen to be from your liberal perspective which I guess is fine for you. Are we expecting perfection from the Trump Administration? It is not going to happen just as other administrations have not reached perfection. To attempt to bring down the Presidency of the United States is counter-productive.


How about the public tax money (vouchers) going to for profit and religious schools? Religious Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist schools, all able to be funded by your tax dollars. I'm surprised those who want limited government and separation of church and state want their tax money going to support religious schools. DeVos thinks that is the way to go. Parental choice. I guess everyone is too busy with the lefties are bad and the conservatives know best.


I feel education is good whether from St. James or Memorial Grade School. Parents should have a choice and not have to pay for both. Yes we should have strong public schools but we seem to be shooying ourselves in the foot despite all money thrown at public schools.


Mike, I think the concept with vouchers is that it is not mine or your money that is going to the religious school. It is the tax money of the person with the voucher.

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