City schools should welcome competition

April 27, 1999|By Howard Baetjer Jr.

WHEN IT was announced last week that 500 low-income Baltimore children had won scholarships to private and parochial schools of their choice, the naysayers came out in force.

Some people interviewed by Sun reporters claimed that such a scholarship program encourages parents to flee the public schools, and that such philanthropy could be interpreted as a sneak attack on the U.S. educational system.

Fleeing the system

The national Children's Scholarship Fund, which will provide the scholarships, doesn't reject such claims. In fact, we are openly encouraging parents to flee unsatisfactory schools. And the program is a kind of attack -- a modest and justified one -- on the system's current lousy performance. (Isn't such a program really more a refugee operation than an attack?)

Nationwide, CSF awarded 40,000 partial scholarships this year to help low-income children attend private and parochial schools. Some 1.25 million children applied. In Baltimore, 20,145 children applied, 44 percent of the eligible Baltimore population.

Baltimore's application rate was the highest in the nation by 12 percentage points. These numbers demonstrate the astonishingly widespread, strong desire of low-income parents to flee the public schools.

Shot in the arm

But we strongly reject the implication of the naysayers' claims that the scholarship program is bad for public schools. Conversely, it is good for public schools.

As CSF co-founder Ted Forstmann says, public schools are essentially a monopoly. Monopolies produce lousy products at high prices. Competition makes them produce better products at lower prices.

Private scholarship programs simply intend to help kids go from poor schools to better ones, but, in fact, they provide much-needed competition for public schools, spurring them to improve. Such improvement is what public school supporters are after, right?

They're not fighting for the survival of public schools for their own sake, but improvement of public schools for the children's sake, right?

The naysayers claim that the children with the most-concerned parents are the most likely to take advantage of the scholarships and leave. When they leave, their positive influence in the classroom will go with them, leaving the public schools with the most difficult, unprepared students. Thus, the overall learning environment deteriorates; the schools suffer.

This argument is plausible, but does it prove that the schools will suffer in the long run? No. Schools, like all enterprises, can improve from within, if given the right incentives.

If the most able students do leave as a result of the scholarship program and some schools are hurt, what will happen? What might the teachers and administrators do in response? They might do nothing, of course (other than ask the legislature for more money), if they have no pride and initiative and believe their jobs secure.

On the other hand, the many frustrated, excellent teachers and administrators in the public schools, who have a vision of what ought to be done and the energy to give it a try, might just begin to prevail over the ossified bureaucracy that has long prevented positive change.

They might look at what private and parochial schools are doing that they are not and make some needed changes.

Stodgy, inflexible bureaucrats might get replaced by those open to change. Lazy teachers might get replaced by hard-working ones. Discredited elements of the curriculum, such as "whole language" reading instruction, might get replaced by phonics-based programs.

Excessive rules and restrictions that hamper individual initiative and experimentation might get replaced by more flexible ones that free teachers to do what they believe best for their students.

Precisely because it threatens the deadening forces within the public school system, the CSF program is good for public schools. A key question is whether our 500 scholarships provide enough competition to spur noticeable change.

If not, there is still hope for the future. CSF plans to award even more such scholarships in succeeding years, increasing competition among schools until all Baltimore parents are satisfied with the schools their children attend, public or private.

Howard Baetjer is a visiting assistant professor of economics at Towson University and chairman of the board of CSF Baltimore.

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