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John Hood: NC education needs choice, competition

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John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p on UNC-TV.

RALEIGH — As a policy analyst and opinion journalist, I have spent much of my career advocating the expansion of choice and competition in education. I purposefully use both of those terms, because I think that families making choices and schools competing for students are distinct but mutually reinforcing mechanisms for improving educational outcomes.

Parents and students should have as many school choices as possible because that increases the likelihood of a right “fit.” Schools vary in leadership, philosophy, culture, emphasis and facilities. The needs of students can vary widely, too. Some thrive in large environments. Others feel safer and more valued in small settings. For some, schools dedicated to shared religious values or academic or vocational themes can be lifesavers. For other kids, they’d be too confining.

Regarding what will suit the needs of a specific child, I don’t assume I know better than those who know and love that child. You shouldn’t make that assumption, either.

Education shouldn’t be structured like a public utility, serving everyone according to street address. Water is water. Electricity is electricity. But the services that schools provide — academic instruction, socialization, discipline and both the “hard” and “soft” skills we need to succeed as workers, parents, neighbors and citizens — are not indistinguishable commodities. Their precise content and proportions can and should vary according to the needs of students and family preferences.

What shouldn’t vary so much is the capacity to act on these preferences. Affluent families have always enjoyed school choice. They can either afford private schools or to move into neighborhoods assigned to the public schools they perceive as “best.” It is ironic that many of those who complain the loudest about disparities of income, wealth, and privilege fight so doggedly against public policies such as charter schools and opportunity scholarships that expand school choice to low- and middle-income families. Such critics are decidedly in the minority. A recent Civitas Institute survey asked North Carolinians if “parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school.” Only 6 percent said no.

The inevitable result of expanding choice is that schools will compete more intensely for students. Quite apart from the salutary effects of fitting individual students to the schools best suited for them, competition among education providers improves the quality of education provided. No one should be surprised. We expect and rely on competition to drive quality in most fields of human endeavor, from industry and sports to government and elections. Indeed, another irony in the school-choice debate is that many who want legislation to break up business monopolies, who want lawsuits to preserve the checks and balances of competing branches of government, and who want constitutional amendments to level the electoral playing field do not also want to see schools competing for students.

If our goals are innovation and excellence in education, that’s exactly what we should want to see. According my John Locke Foundation colleague Terry Stoops, researchers have published 34 studies since 2008 that examined the effects of competition on district-run public schools. Only two found negative or no effects.

For example, a 2017 paper published in the journal Applied Economics looked at education in West Virginia. As the share of students in private or home schools rose in a county, test scores rose in the county’s public schools.

I don’t advocate choice and competition because I dislike district-run public schools or want to see them fail. I favor these policies because I believe an expansive, dynamic, and competitive education sector for North Carolina will maximize student success, accommodate diverse views and preferences, and make our state a better place to live, work, rear children, and build communities.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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