In July of 2005, while I was Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, I wrote an opinion piece on school choice and competition. It ran in the Austin American Statesman on July 11, 2005, under the title "Competition is good-even for public schools." It ran the next day in the Bryan/College Station Eagle under the title, Schools need choice, competition.
That article is reprinted below:
In my first legislative session as chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, I was so focused on getting "our fair share" of higher education funds that I barely noticed the important effort to introduce choice and competition into Texas public education. The failure of that effort is arguably more detrimental to raising the educational achievement of Texans in the long run than the failure to approve tuition revenue bonds for needed university building programs.
Choice and competition work wonders. It wasn't that long ago that the introduction of high-quality Hondas and Toyotas into the U.S. market not only broadened the choices available to American consumers, but ultimately improved Ford and Chevrolet quality as well.
My first encounter with the idea of school choice and competition was in Milton Friedman's 1962 classic, "Capitalism and Freedom." Friedman has successfully advocated many market-based solutions to public policy problems throughout his distinguished, Nobel Prize-winning career. But in his 90s, he has singled out parental choice as his most important unfinished business and established a foundation to promote it.
In a June 9 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, Friedman summarized the frustrating history of getting choice programs adopted. He says the efforts usually start out with broad parental and public support as a means of dealing with at-risk students and failing school systems, but that organized resistance by trade union leaders and the education bureaucracy generally prevails.
I know firsthand how frightening competition can be to those long shielded from it. When the Monetary Control Act of 1980 required the Federal Reserve to begin charging for check services it had been providing free to financial institutions so private banks could better compete with us, I was only a month into my job as head of the Fed's Baltimore office. We promptly lost more than 40 percent of our check-processing business to private-sector competitors. But we eventually recovered most of it by improving our services and otherwise emulating private-sector profit incentives. Government monopolies are usually run by good people, but competition makes them better.
I met many fine students and teachers when I later became president of the Dallas Fed. We conducted an annual essay competition for high school students. We also sponsored a competition in which students studied economics and competed with mock meetings of the Fed's Federal Open Market Committee. I'm proud to say that our Texas teams won the national championship in three of the first four years we participated – Bryan High School in 1996-98 – and then Midland High School won in 2000.
The students I met through these competitions were awesome. But they were the cream of the crop. Although Texas has many excellent students in all its public schools, and has many excellent schools, it also has too many schools that don't measure up. Texas has a high dropout rate. Of those who do graduate, only half go on to college, and many of them require remedial work.
The Dallas Fed also conducts conferences and workshops to help teachers gear up to teach economics. I was pleased to learn recently that A&M System Universities and others, largely on behalf of the Texas Education Agency, actively support teacher education, not only by training new teachers, but also by helping existing teachers in nearby high schools raise their quality of instruction. I know that Texas has many competent and confident teachers. But, like the students I met, the teachers are probably the cream of the crop who self-select into improvement programs.
In contrast, I'm afraid that many teachers, being human, naturally fear competition and accountability. Even so, they owe it to the kiddos to suck it up and give choice and competition a chance. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to do what needs to be done despite fear. In this increasingly competitive, globalized world we live in, we can't afford to be second best. We can't afford to neglect improvement opportunities in order to remain in our comfort zone.
Many will say that I'm stepping over the line between higher education and public education – that I've stopped preaching and gone to meddling. Maybe so, but I do have a dog in this fight. If good players help make good coaches, then better prepared students are needed to help make Texas higher education world class. So, let's hope that, as our legislators grapple with the complexities of school finance, they will also try to find a way to introduce choice and competition into Texas schools.
Reprinted with permission of the Austin American-Statesman