Byron Schlomach, Ph.D. | April 13, 2022
Competition drives improvement in public schools
Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.
People love contests. We have spelling bees, chess tournaments, video game contests, and poker tournaments, just to name a few that are non-physical. Then there are all the sports, too numerous to list but that include football, basketball, hockey, swimming, soccer, and a host of others.
When it comes to sports, nearly a third of the daily television news is often devoted to these contests. Not everybody enjoys every contest, but humans love participating in them and we love to watch them. One likely reason is that we enjoy the competition inherent in contests. We strive to be better when we directly participate and want to see the contestants we root for get better. That’s the blessing of competition—striving for better, getting better, being better.
Competition in markets works the same magic, and as a result, we all benefit. Domino’s Pizza rebooted their pizzas several years ago because they were losing to the competition. Their pizzas got better. And every pizza consumer benefited. Competition boosts quality and it boosts efficiency, because the best possible outcome for consumers, and the outcome they choose when it’s possible, is to have both increased quality and decreased prices. And in the process, producers—all producers—do their best to meet such expectations. They do their best to get better.
Competition works in an education context, too. Numerous studies, many published in academic journals, have looked at the impact on public schools that are subjected to private-school competition when school-choice programs are implemented. The overwhelming evidence—and the outcome easily anticipated by all but the most dedicated ideologues—shows that when public schools cease to be monopolies, they improve, at least as evidenced by their students’ standardized test scores.
Just last year, the academic journal Education Finance & Policy published a study that found neutral to positive results on test scores of children who remained in public schools resulting from the Louisiana Scholarship Program. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, in addition to a number of other studies published in academic journals, showed positive results on students remaining in public schools as a result of Florida’s expansion of their school-choice program. While the effects were modest, the biggest positives occurred for low-income students, and not only test scores improved, but attendance did as well.
The same sort of modest results occured in San Antonio, as a study published in the Journal of Economics and Finance found. In San Antonio, a privately funded voucher program was put in place targeting the Edgewood school district. The researchers found that as long as this program was in place, there were test score gains by the students who remained in district schools. However, as the voucher program neared its known expiration date, the gains dissipated. In other words, when the public schools saw their monopoly coming back, they started acting like monopolists again.
As anyone who has taken an economics course knows, monopolies produce too little, and they produce it at a high price. Public schools across the United States produce what can only be described as abysmal results compared to other nations even as this country spends more per-student than nations that score better in international comparisons. In other words, just as economic theory predicts, monopoly public schools produce too little (students who know too little) and at a high price (swallowing rising funding that is high compared to the rest of the world).
Of the 27 studies identified by EdChoice that looked at the impact of school choice on public schools subjected to competition, one did show negative impacts and another showed a neutral impact. The other 25 showed positive impacts on the children who remained in the public schools.
As with other impacts like the test results and educational attainment for children who choose a private school and parental satisfaction with choice schools, the gains are not earth shattering. But, they are gains. And it may take years for the kinds of cultural shifts on the part of students, parents, and educators that will produce greater gains to occur. But the lesson is that competitive pressure in education is every bit as beneficial as it is in sports, other contests, and markets. It pushes everyone to be better, and not only do those who are made better benefit. We all do.
Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.
Byron Schlomach (Ph.D. in economics, Texas A&M University) served as director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute, and prior to that was chief economist for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.