edited 11/8/16 

Does this sound familiar?

“Competition is responsible for most advances in living standards. Goods and services continually improve because they are selected by people choosing among competitors. Companies that don’t adapt to changing conditions go out of business. This is how organizations are revitalized and recentered on the quality of their products.Public schools also have a product – education. What they lack is competition. So the “education establishment’s” comfort remains undisturbed. If “government schools” had to compete for students there is no doubt they would improve. Why? Because the demand for betterment would be irresistible.”

In this case, former Delaware Governor Pete Du Pont is huckstering the school improvement through natural selection argument. It could have been any number of other free market messiahs. If we just light the fires of competition, folks of this persuasion assure us, it inevitably will make schools better. Create competitive conditions and the demand for betterment will be “irresistible.” Only the best schools will survive. 

This argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwin’s principle of natural selection. It was Darwin who observed that in natural selection survivors aren’t the best, they are the best adapted. This is a crucial difference. Rats, for instance, are better adapted to life in sewers than tigers. Should we take this to mean that rats are better than tigers? Starlings are better adapted to urban living than are bald eagles. Are starlings better?

Here is what we should learn from this, If we use market forces to reform schooling, it isn’t the best schools, merely the best adapted, that will survive. The key question, then, is: what sorts of schools are likely to be best adapted? Let’s look at the marketplace to see what we can find out.

Television provides an instructive example. Programming is based on competition for ratings. The programming best adapted to that environment survive. What has that led to? The Dating Game, the World Wrestling Federation, MTV, reality TV, tabloid TV journalism, the soaps, ad nauseum. The result of unfettered competition has not been better and better television, but what Newton Minnow famously called a “vast wasteland,” Won’t the self-same thing happen if we marketplace schooling?

Perhaps television is an abnormality. Let’s look at another example. Free market forces also shape the radio industry even more than they do television. That’s because public interest no longer matters so far as the sale of radio broadcast licenses is concerned. They now just go to the highest bidder. Fierce competition for ratings then sets program standards. The consequence is not better radio but a sea of vulgarity and mediocrity. Philadelphia’s one and only classical music station, for example, disappeared, its operating license bought up by a profit driven corporation that changed the station to soft rock. Now, thanks to the purifying effects of competition, the nation’s fourth largest radio market has no commercial station, not one, broadcasting classical music. But station after station does play hour upon hour of mind-numbing, vulgar musical garbage coupled with irresponsible right wing hate speech typified by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. If free enterprise becomes ascendant in schooling will similar forces operate in the that marketplace? Will the public be wiser and more discerning in their choice of schools than they are in their choice of radio stations?

The restaurant industry offers further food for thought. The fires of competition rage white hot in this industry. Who has emerged on the top of the heap? Restaurants that provide wholesome, nutritious food? Nope, not them. How about restaurants preparing haute cuisine? Not them either. It is outfits like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendys who reign supreme! Thanks to the very forces that free market reformers assure us, “causes organizations to revitalize and recenter on the quality of their products,” these grease soaked gastronomical abominations are shortening life and expanding girth around the world. If market forces are set free to improve schooling, will fast schooling chains soon be offering the educational equivalent of Biggie Fries?

Free market competition has had a similar effect on mass merchandising. Walmart and Home Depot offer ominous examples. Both have done well in the market place. But do we want our schools to be like these chains? What would the educational equivalent of Walmartl be like, anyway?

Sure, good products and excellent service sometimes emerge victorious from competition. But demands for betterment are far from irresistible. They are not even likely because free market competition very often favors those who cater to the lowest common denominator.

Free market messiahs don’t consider these realities when prescribing competition as a cure-all for our schools. The rest of us shouldn’t make the same mistake.