Education Opinion

The Unexamined Side of School Competition

By Walt Gardner — May 25, 2011 2 min read
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A favorite argument made by reformers is that if public schools were forced to compete for students the educational landscape in this country would change for the better. Yet an essay in The Weekly Standard presents the downside of this strategy without fully realizing its implications for the accountability movement (“Learning on the Last Frontier,” May 30).

The focus was the Southeast Island School District in a remote part of Alaska, with a total of 161 students and a $5.5 million budget. Seven of the district’s schools have only one or two teachers who teach all students from K-12. Yet despite the arrangement, the district posts “exceptional academic results” on statewide tests. This is evidence that schools can be “quite successful without throwing money at them,” according to the piece.

This is the backstory, but it is pertinent to the ongoing debate about the benefits of competition. Under the law in Alaska, any school with fewer than 10 students loses its state funding. Coming up with a count of only 9 students means no funding and certain closure. It’s the Sword of Damocles over the head of every school superintendent in the state.

That’s where the unintended consequences of competition come into play. Fearful of dropping below the state enrollment requirement, each neighboring school district tries to steal students from the other. It’s a perfectly legal tactic. To do so, a school district bribes parents by paying a generous mileage reimbursement to those willing to transport their children to the school. Since many parents already have jobs in the other community, all they have to do is to drive their children with them to work to collect as much as $275 a week for the cost of travel.

What would happen if all schools in the U.S. were forced to compete for students? Corporate reformers maintain that this would force schools to improve or risk closing. If the latter, why wouldn’t creative poaching in one form or another become commonplace? After all, in any high-stakes game, the goal is survival. We’ve already seen how pressure to stay alive has created an atmosphere ripe for cheating on standardized tests. I can foresee a situation where school districts would become so desperate that they would engage in other unethical or even illegal practices. Have we forgotten the lessons that Campbell’s Law has taught?

It’s something to think about because pressure is inexorably building to destroy what critics like to call government schools, and competition is an ideal weapon in their arsenal.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.