Competing schools


I stopped reading The Economist a while back, but yesterday by chance I happened upon a blog on their website that reminded me why I was so keen to cancel that subscription.

It is on education and gives undue credit to a thesis set out in the abstract of this paper and endorsed by Matthew Yglesias in a blog here. It is perhaps best summed up in the following statement by Mr Yglesias’:

Colleges and universities compete with one another largely by trying to attract the best applicants. That lets you screen and have the best students. Which then helps ensure that your students go on to be successful, thus improving your reputation. Missing from the circle of life is any thought that you might have to actually do a good job of improving the skills of your students.

And so, for Mr Yglesias, the solution is to limit school choice. The Economist follows this logic stating that:

One tricky part about introducing competition into schooling is in setting up the market to reward high quality teaching rather than reputation.

And goes on to argue that:

We want teachers to do their best. But if the most important thing in education is to be around the right people in the right place, then parents with the financial ability to do so will opt out of the system, reducing the average ability of the students remaining in the system, and making teachers' task harder.

The principal mistake is these authors’ failures to acknowledge that we currently have the very problem that they are wishing to avoid. An education system with profound social, economic and qualitative differences of schooling, determined by a postcode lottery. Thus, positing the fear that a free market will lead to these problems is misleading. As such, the question needs instead to be asked would a free market be less or more equal than the current system (if equality is your aim).

Also, in dealing with the issue, no consideration is taken as to why teachers in schools don’t teach well. The chief answer is an absence of competition. The key to creating this does not lie in another distorted market that will invariably bring its own unintended consequences, but to set schools and parents free.

For this we can turn to Adam Smith. Although he was in favour of some taxation to help fund schools, let it not be forgotten that he also endorsed and saw the merit of parents additionally paying school fees directly to teachers to ensure that teachers' positions and careers are garnered, secured and advanced by the quality of what goes on inside the classroom.