Honolulu Advertiser Second Opinion column

by Cliff Slater

March 21, 2002


Let's have our schools compete

If you really want to understand why Hawaii's public education is in such a sad state then you have to imagine that what would happen if food were similarly provided for.

We would be taxed more to pay for the food, but food at the store would be free. We would all be assigned a particular Community Store at which we would get our food although, in special cases, we could apply to the authorities to be able to get food at another Community Store.

In order to keep costs down, expensive high quality food would not be available. For that, you would have to shop at one of the private and elitist free market shops.

Community Stores would have a generally seedy look, as little money would be spent on maintenance (you can’t cut ribbons on maintenance).

Since all Community Stores would provide the same food—and prices would be unnecessary—there would be no competition between them.

I’ll stop there; you get the drift.

There is a reason that Hawaii's private supermarkets and private schools are generally better maintained, more efficient and more likely to please their customers than are our public schools—competition.

Competition is what forces supermarket operators to constantly scramble to out innovate each other—“Big wide aisles, great big smiles” and “Can I help you out to your car, ma’am?”—in trying to win customers.

No one wants competition if they can avoid it; competition is very humbling. You cannot rationalize, justify and explain away inefficiencies with customers. You either have the best prices, selection and quality or you don’t; customers are not interested in just words.

And the supermarket is either well maintained or it isn’t. Supermarket operators cannot rationalize why they should have a bigger maintenance budget. The store has to meet its customers’ requirements and the maintenance costs have to be included in the food prices that people are willing to pay.

If all our public schools converted to charter schools, they would have to compete for students. They would have to offer the quality and content of education that would entice parents to place their children there.

Schools would have to compete for teachers. That means that schools would have to bid for the math and science teachers that are in such short supply.

Schools would have to compete for principals. That means that the better principals would go to those schools whose board of directors offered the best opportunities for a free hand, for quality of facilities and better compensation.

Parents would be able to switch their child from one school to another at their convenience and not that of the bureaucracy. The net result of all this would be a improvement in the quality of education.

With competing charter schools there would be the money to afford all these things since, with school level management, most of the DOE's education bureaucracy would be unnecessary. This would free up much of the education budget and make funds available for the important things like textbooks.

Somehow we have gotten ourselves thinking that competition cannot work in schools. Try telling that to the football coaches.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater