Free market competition improves public education, too


Free market advocates and thinkers argue that market forces and competition motivate businesses and entrepreneurs to innovate and create new goods and services that improve peoples’ lives. Over time those goods and services become better and often less expensive. For instance, consider how free-market-driven innovation has led to better and in many cases cheaper computers, telephones, cars and home appliances over the years. More importantly, think about how such free market innovations have improved the lives of almost every Utahn in the state.

School choice advocates in Utah have similarly sought to apply free market ideas to education policy in order to establish competition, thereby motivating innovation and leading to better academic outcomes for children and parents in Utah’s public schools. It seems that those efforts are working.

Just this year, the state Legislature allowed public school students to begin taking individual classes from any approved digital learning providers to complement their traditional classes at their brick-and-mortar school. When public school students enroll in this program, state funding goes from the student’s school district to the online class provider. In other words, the state online learning program is creating competition for taxpayer funding between traditional and online public schools.

The result has been innovation by school districts. The Salt Lake Tribune recently ran a story explaining how various school districts across the state have begun to create or expand their online offerings to keep taxpayer dollars within the school district. As one school district representative put it: “Once SB65 came out and was signed into law, we thought, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something in public education to respond.’”

[pullquote]Competition and free market principles give public schools a compelling reason to produce new, innovative ways of educating children. [/pullquote]There you have it. Competition and free market principles give public schools a compelling reason to produce new, innovative ways of educating children. When those incentives exist, public schools respond.

And as it has proven in other areas of life, free market competition will, over time, drive educators to innovate and produce better ways of educating children. Similarly, free market competition will drive education entrepreneurs to find ways of producing similar or better academic outcomes for less money than traditional ways of educating children. Digital learning –from both the angle of its ability to provide better education as well as lower the cost of education – is a prime example of education innovation driven by free market competition.

In other words, free market competition works not only in the economy, but in public education too.

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  • Anonymous

    Whoa…. hold on there a minute Derek.  Before you say that “it is working” we need some more data.  We need to wait to see if these hastily thrown together online programs actually help students or hurt them.  For many years online classes had shown very poor levels of efficiency i.e., far fewer students actually earned credit in them.  I realize that things have improved and I agree that innovation CAN be great but the jury is still out in terms of whether or not this scrambling to keep money will benefit students.  What will we all do if this rush to online offerings cause a drop in graduation rates?  Just saying.

    • Dmonson

      When I say free market competition is working, I’m saying that it is forcing school districts to get innovative in how they deliver public education, and do something other than the status quo (which we know does not work for a large number of children). That we don’t need more data for…the fact that school districts are forming online schools where formerly none existed is proof enough.

      But as with any innovative, free market setting, it will take time to produce better educational outcomes.  It will also likely take some failures…someone will always end up producing an Edsel.  But if you aren’t willing to take some risks, you won’ t likely reap many significant rewards.

      • Anonymous

        Your points regarding innovation and competition are well taken.  The title of your post though, is “Free market competition improves public education too.”  I’m just saying that in the particular instance you site, we don’t know that yet.  Some people are fond of saying Change Is Good.  What they really need to say is that GOOD Change Is Good.  We have to realize that BAD Change is just that…BAD.

        • Dmonson

          In my opinion, the fact that school districts are starting to move outside the status quo – in response to SB 65 – by setting up online schools is a good thing for public education.  One thing the data does show is that our public school system is failing to serve a significant proportion of children in the state. Yet, the public education system remains more or less the same from one year to the next. Just getting the public school system off that path of inertia is, in my view, and improvement over what we have had.

          Now, are the specific online schools being created good ones?  I don’t know…as you point out, we need more time and information to determine that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say with some level of confidence that it is good to see school districts trying to change and adapt to a 21st Century world by doing something different. I think we have all of the data we need to say that is progress and a good sign…in other words, an improvement.

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