A step toward competition

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Our state took a step toward school choice and vouchers by passing the Alabama Accountability Act last spring. The Act allows students in the attendance zones of failing schools to enroll in other public schools or private schools with a tuition voucher equal to the state’s portion of per pupil public school funding (around $3,500). The measure also allows tax deductions for contributions for scholarships for eligible students to attend private schools.

The Act moves Alabama toward competition for primary and secondary education. But much work remains: only a small number of children now have choice, and the voucher will not fully cover for private school tuition. The Act is like launching a couple of life rafts as the Titanic sinks. It’s a start, but the many kids still in the water must be rescued soon.

Parents, teachers, and most importantly students would benefit from more competition in education. Economics is my field of expertise, so I won’t weigh in on modes of instruction or learning. But economics does explain the benefits of system-wide competition. While some critics rail against government-run schools, I think a lack of competition is the most significant problem. Public school teachers and principals need freedom to do their jobs, which competition would facilitate.

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Public school teachers today have relatively little discretion over what or how they teach, which is not surprising, given our public education establishment. The system begins with the teachers and principals, but includes local school boards, state boards of education, and the Federal Department of Education. Yet only teachers actually teach students. Everyone else wanting a say in how or what students are taught can do so only through the teacher. Inevitably textbooks, lesson plans, and other elements of education become highly controlled. Standardized testing to verify teaching of the curriculum proliferates. Education becomes like a kitchen where several chefs all try to control food preparation via remote control.

Such a system diminishes prospects for real education significantly. Teachers denied professional autonomy may not take ownership of their teaching, and consequently will be less effective. For example, some university economics departments require a common text book for all of our principles classes. A professor who must use what he or she thinks is a poor text will not teach as effectively. Micro-management also reduces teachers’ job satisfaction. Paperwork documenting compliance with bureaucratic edicts contributes to cost inflation in education in addition to demoralizing teachers.

The public school apparatus relies on top-down accountability, where administrators and bureaucrats assure parents of the quality of education. Parents have relatively little input into the process. Yet if parents can choose a pediatrician or dentist for their children, they can also choose a school.

A more competitive system would more closely reflect parents’ preferences. Parents unhappy with the quality or nature of instruction will shop around for one they prefer. If Alabama provided vouchers equal to the average per pupil expenditure of public schools, parents could afford private as well as public school options. The system would focus more on the basics and less on social engineering or teaching fads. Economist Thomas Sowell has long-criticized the education establishment’s pursuit of fads and engineering at the expense of basic skills. A lack of competition allows for this mission drift – parents can’t shop around as long as children must attend the public school in which zone they live. Parents care more about what their children learn than bureaucrats or interest groups attempting to influence education policy.

American higher education demonstrates that the public sector can offer education comparable to the private sector. Teachers need more freedom to accomplish this, which competition will enable. The Alabama Accountability Act is a first step in this direction, but a long journey lies ahead.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University. Respond to him at dsutter@troy.edu and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.