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Unleash the Power of School Choice

Life is competition. Every organism on the planet, from virus to human, is the champion of a generation’s long struggle for the right to exist. Every product you consider, collect or consume is the result of innumerable competitive transactions. There are so many competitive transactions that must occur to produce even the simplest product that economist Milton Friedman observed, “There’s nobody in the world who knows how to make a pencil.” While pencils obviously get made, his point was no single person has the knowledge to build the tools to collect all the raw materials and then process those into a pencil.

Competitive pressure is so strong that not only did the device you are likely using to read this not exist a generation ago; neither did the market for it. The smartphone you find indispensable was unknown at the turn of the century.

In all but a few limited situations, competition and the free market outperform monopolies. However, as a society we do find some situations that require a regulated monopoly. Utilities are an example. It would be impractical to have three different water companies competing to supply domestic water. It would be a nuisance to have trucks from five different garbage collection companies crisscrossing the city to collect the trash. In the days of wired telephone it was desirable to have everyone on one system so that they could call everyone else. If there were two systems you would need to have both and then have to know who was on which system before placing a call.

One downside of monopolies is they are essentially static systems. The rotary dial telephone remained an unchanging fixture in American households for nearly 80 years. Monopolies abhor innovation. As soon as technology allowed different systems to communicate, competition brought us the smartphone in a handful of years.

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At the height of the British Empire, the bureaucracy of the world was run using ships carrying messages on slips of paper. It was a requirement that both the sender and the receiver of those messages share a common language and understanding. Standardized schooling was a practical necessity.

Standardized schooling thrived through the industrial revolution because it produced a uniform product: people who could take their place as both factory workers and consumers. Their skills, habits, and appetites were forged into relative sameness by a rigid system of schooling. Schooling begets uniformity, like a school of fish.

It was in this frame that our Idaho Constitution was written. Article IX, Section 1 says:

“The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

It is interesting to note that the reason for common schools was not enlightenment or prosperity. The reason common schools exist is to ensure the stability of a republican form of government.

It is reasonable to ask if public schools are doing the job that justifies their existence. Can high school graduates explain how a republican form of government operates, why it is superior to other forms of government, and what contributes to its stability? Not likely.

Competition in the information age has transformed our ability to access knowledge. What once took days or weeks to research now takes milliseconds. Competition brought the compendium of all human knowledge to your fingertip, basically for free. The idea that you would spend thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars acquiring that which is already in your pocket now seems unwise.

Our industrial age system of public schools is as calcified as a rotary dial telephone, and about as well equipped to serve us in the digital information age.

Monopolies have little to no incentive to innovate, which is why the cell phone was not invented by a telephone company. We should not expect the innovations required for modernization of our school system to come from within that system. The existing school bureaucracy recognizes that it is inadequate for the task but is essentially clueless about how to adapt. Lacking a viable solution, the fallback position is to demand more money.

The only way to bring our children’s education system into the information age is to allow and encourage competition. School choice will open the doors to the market place of new ideas and the best ideas will quickly percolate to the top.

The bureaucrats who are ensconced in the status quo will howl predictions of doom and gloom. They will hold your children as shields against improvement. They know that once viable solutions arrive, their time at the helm is done. Don’t listen to them.

To prosper in the 21st century, our children need more than an 18th century education system. Let’s unleash the power of free market competition, the power of school choice.

It’s just common sense.

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One reply on “Unleash the Power of School Choice”

Outstanding article. Our public school system is a monopoly that has isolated itself from a competitive “market place”. Heirarchy and dogma have supplanted innovation. A sclerotic and antiquated system is today unable to adjust to rapidly changing demand. Thanks for a great article,

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