Why California is Losing the Competitiveness Race in Education

California’s education establishment dislikes competition but the most recent research shows that, in the education marketplace, competition works.  A March 2011 study by the Foundation for Educational Choice (FEC) analyzed the results of all empirical studies that used the best scientific methods to measure how school-choice vouchers affect the academic outcomes of participating students.  The results should serve as a beacon as California policymakers debate ways to improve the state’s poorly performing government-run school system.

Under voucher programs, a state attaches funding to a student, which he or she can take to the public or private school of his or her choice. The study concluded, “Contrary to the widespread claim that vouchers do not benefit participants and hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows that vouchers improve outcomes for both participants and public schools.”

According to the FEC study, nine out of the 10 studies found that vouchers improved student outcome measurements such as test scores in the core subjects and graduation rates.  In addition, by increasing competition between public and private schools, voucher programs forced public school systems to improve.

Eighteen of the 19 empirical studies that looked at how vouchers affect public schools found that public schools improved their performance in the face of the increased competition fostered by vouchers.  In fact, every empirical study conducted in states with voucher programs, such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, has found that “voucher programs in those places improved public schools.”  The FEC study said that while there are a variety of reasons why vouchers might improve public school performance, “The most important is that competition from vouchers introduces healthy incentives for public schools to improve.”  Yet, California has erected barriers to widespread competition in education.

Over the last few years, voucher and other pro-school-choice legislation have died in the state Legislature.  Now, with Democrats controlling the Assembly, Senate and the governor’s office, liberal legislators have unleashed a flood of anti-choice bills.  For example, AB 401 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) caps the number of charter schools, deregulated public schools started by parents, teachers and community organizations.  Ammiano’s bill targets charters despite the reality that they are four times more likely than regular public schools to be among the top 5 percent of schools statewide in student achievement.  Current California regulations also block students from choosing online and virtual education alternatives.

Online education involves teaching and learning through the Internet.  Virtual charter schools use online learning programs to provide education services to students on their home computer.  However, as documented in the recently released Pacific Research Institute book Short Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California, a slew of irrational rules and regulations hamper the ability of California children to access virtual charter schools.  For instance, a student cannot enroll in a virtual charter school if he or she does not live in the county in which the school has been established or a contiguous county.  James Konantz, vice president of K12, Inc., which operates virtual charter schools, notes that such a rule is based on the nonsensical belief that “the Internet changes from county line to county line.”

Konantz says: “I truly believe what has been promulgated in public policy for online education is not developed for the common good, I think it was developed for the lesser common good and that lesser common good is dictated by the traditional public education sectors.”  While California narrows choice and competition, other states have expanded options for parents.

In May, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels signed into law the most comprehensive expansion of school choice in the nation’s history.  The law creates the largest voucher program in the country that will help 600,000 children from low- and middle-income families attend the public or private school of their choosing.  Also, the law gives a tax deduction to any family that pays out-of-pocket expenses for private or home schooling.  The law dramatically increases the state program that gives individuals and businesses a tax credit for donating to organizations that award school scholarships to low-income students.

The new widely available voucher is probably the most important of the Indiana reforms.  As the FEC study observes, “Only universal vouchers can break the [government-run] education monopoly and produce the dramatic improvements we need.”  Yet, Governor Jerry Brown’s budget proposals do not include any school-choice or other competition-inducing reforms.

California is rapidly losing the competitiveness race in education. Maximizing competitiveness requires full and open competition.  Competitiveness cannot be enhanced under conditions of monopoly or regulatory zealotry. It is therefore no surprise that so many California students perform poorly in the state’s government-run school system.

As the authors of Short Circuited conclude, “it is time for government and its [allied] special-interest obstructionists to get out of the way and let the future in so that parents and their children can exercise their fundamental right to choose the type of education that best meets their individual needs.”

— Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.  He is the co-author of Short Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California (San Francisco, CA: Pacific Research Institute, 2011).

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