Competition Increases Quality: The Biggest Myth of School Choice

In 2010 a documentary entitled Waiting for Superman was released. The film focused on the failures of public education in America and featured footage of a charter school lottery where children cried because they did not win an out from their failing public school. Like many out in the audience I was outraged. I walked away from that film feeling strongly that we need more of those fantastic charter schools to educate our children. After all, I attended a charter school for 5 years and I turned out just fine.

I am no stranger to the perils of education in America. For 15 years I worked at an after school remedial math and reading program. Three years ago I started volunteering as a Special Education Advocate for students with disabilities. I’ve met hundreds of students who cannot read or solve basic math problems. I’ve talked to frustrated parents and embarrassed students who- despite common beliefs- are desperately trying to find some success in a broken system.

So yes, I wanted one of those highly successful charter schools to swoop in and save these students. To bring in their rigorous standards, their colorful classrooms, and their energetic teaching staff. So what if these schools took students from the local public school system? What does is matter if this would cause schools to close down? Competition will increase quality! The public schools will have to step their game up if they want to compete with these awesome charter schools!

I was so wrong.

The area I live in is heavily saturated with charter schools. Some are for-profit, others are non-profit. Some offer a rigorous curriculum, most do not. A few have excellent standardized testing scores, but most do not. None of them lived up to the hype of the stellar schools in Waiting for Superman, not even the charter school that I attended.

The truth is that my school was a financial disaster. Its physical location was in three very different locations (the first move was 11 miles away from its original location). The founder and his wife were fired following rumors of embezzlement. Several years later the new Director’s husband was sentenced to over 5 years in prison after being found guilty of passing bad checks, forgery, money laundering, and grand theft. All of this occurred in the 8 years the school was open. That is the life span of a typical charter school in this area.

1. They open in former school buildings, renovated health clubs, abandoned warehouses, or shopping centers.

2. They don’t produce results.

3. They close, leaving hundreds of families to go out shopping for a new school.

Competition does not lead to quality. It just turns education into an unpredictable open marketplace. Schools become like restaurants. If parents don’t like something about a school, it’s no big deal they can just go choose another one. Educators don’t have to deal with pesky parents or challenging students because attending their school is a choice, and if they don’t like it they can just leave and go elsewhere.

Listen, a lot of schools are struggling, this is an undeniable fact. But we have to believe that those schools are full of good people who chose education because they care about students. We have to believe that they are doing their best and instead of turning their life’s work into a competition, we need to offer the support they need to guide students to success.

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