Education finally came up in a presidential debate and I heard something that I never heard before — the standard-bearers for both parties agreed that competition was good for public schools. Sure, past Democratic candidates have endorsed school choice with charters, as Obama did. But Obama did something new. He specifically said that competition from charter schools was important for improving traditional public schools.
Clinton, Gore, and Kerry embraced school choice with charters as an escape hatch for students condemned to failing public schools, sounding very much like Sol Stern, Mike Petrilli, and Rick Hess. But Obama left previous Democratic candidates and these fellows at market-oriented (?!) think tanks in the dust by saying that choice was desirable because of competition.
Here are Obama’s exact words: “Charter schools, I doubled the number of charter schools in Illinois despite some reservations from teachers unions. I think it’s important to foster competition inside the public schools.”
Of course, Obama wants to limit choice and competition to public schools (which include charters), while McCain wants to include private schools in the mix. But they agree on the big idea: public schools are improved when they have to compete to earn students and the revenue those students generate.
Just think. Only twenty years ago school choice and competition was hardly a glimmer in Ronald Reagan’s eye. Now the idea is so widely accepted as reasonable that the leaders of both parties differ only on the mechanism for producing choice and competition. We’ve come a long way, baby.
Correction — Rick Hess emailed to say that he did not want to be counted among those who are unpersuaded by competitive effects from choice. He does think that almost no current choice program is designed properly to produce competitive effects, but he thinks such effects are possible and desirable.