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As the Supreme Court struggles with the constitutionality of school choice, the case for competition simply becomes stronger. Like any monopoly, the public school system behaves in ways that harm consumers. Unfortunately, in this case that means parents and their children, who are forced to attend schools where they have little input or control. Street addresses, not quality assessments, are the determining factor for most families when it comes to education.
It is common knowledge that many of our public schools are failing. According to the National Center for Education, private schools outperformed public schools on reading and mathematics. Even more troubling recent results have found that progress is poorest among struggling students, where reading skills have dropped significantly in recent years. Rural and inner-city schools face teacher shortages, and overcrowding and safety are real issues at many schools. Despite an increase in education funding of 45 percent in constant dollars over the last decade, the public system continues to have trouble delivering a basic education for America’s children.
What is less well known is that that many of America’s teachers are ill-prepared themselves when it comes to core areas of learning, such as reading, math, and science. A recent study by the Department of Education reports some alarming statistics on our nation’s teachers. While recognizing that there are certainly dedicated and effective teachers, the report notes that far too many teachers have insufficient capabilities in core academic subject areas. Further, despite a critical teacher shortage, the report notes, “States have managed to create a system that condones both low standards and high barriers,” (p. 35). Poorly qualified teachers are carried by the system, while red tape and exasperating certification processes deter many well-qualified would-be teachers.
In other words, bureaucracy has trumped efficiency, a common result when dealing with monopolies. But when the final consumer is a child building the skills for a successful future, the results are all the more tragic. Numerous studies have demonstrated that teacher quality and familiarity with academic content are perhaps the most significant factors for student success—more important than class size or spending. Yet for America’s teachers, academic content is only secondary; degrees in education replace a liberal arts education with courses in educational theory and learning that do little to promote academic subject matter.
Although teachers must be certified in core academic areas, the certification can be dubious. As the Department of Education report notes, “Academic standards for teachers are low. On one popular teacher licensure test used by 29 states, only one state set its passing score near the national average in reading, while 15 set their respective passing scores below the 25th percentile. On math and writing tests, only one state set its passing score above the national average” (p. viii).
These results only make sense in the world of monopoly, where consumers have little choice but to accept the hand they are dealt. A more competitive market for education would force the issue of quality to the fore, with parents and students demanding excellence in their teachers. In the current monopoly world, however, excellence is not necessarily rewarded. Seniority and certification play a greater role when it comes to salaries and promotions, and the certification process thwarts those seeking a career change as well as liberal arts majors who decide they want to go into teaching after graduating. While doing little to strengthen academic content, the certification process for an individual coming from outside a school of education can take up to two years, making teaching a less attractive option.
Which leads to the current problem. The nation faces an urgent shortage of good teachers with core skills in key academic areas. In a market, individuals with such skills would be sought out to bolster customer satisfaction. Yet in the public school monopoly, the solution is paperwork, teaching certification programs, and barriers to entry that have done little to improve academic qualifications. Indeed, teacher education has become an insular process, with education majors studying everything but academic content. And teacher certification has become centralized in state teachers colleges, which enforce the monopoly through certification practices that deter qualified outsiders from pursuing an academic career.
School choice presents an opportunity to strengthen academic standards. With the ability to shop for a better education, parents will seek out excellence, not seniority. In response, schools will have to seek out teachers with stronger skills in key academic subject areas.
Competition has always been a powerful force that drives efficiency and improves quality. It does not take a bureaucracy and government specifications for McDonald’s to create a popular hamburger that is served with a smile. All it takes is a Burger King on the next corner. Consumers with the right to choose bring out the best in both of them. While parents can choose where to buy a hamburger for their child, many continue to have little say in the education of their children. As long as schools are protected from the threat of competition, it should not be surprising that quality may be lacking.