Real Competition

Democratic National Leadership Council chairman Harold Ford, former IBM chairman Louis Gerstner, and KB Homes founder Eli Broad have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal in which they admonish the Obama administration to hang tough on the “Race to the Top” education sweepstakes. They also declare that ”competition brings out the best performance. That’s true in athletics and in business, and it’s true in education.”

Now, as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, the Race to the Top isn’t designed to be something that the administration hangs tough on. It is designed to be something that it talks tough on but states actually have to do little of substance to win. All that states have to do, for the most part, is submit plans to do reform-y things, not actually reform much of anything! And don’t forget, Race to the Top offers but a drop of cash compared to the lakes that the “stimulus” poured out to protect the status quo from any financial dry mouth. 

Then there’s the competition bit. It’s certainly true that competition is a key driver of quality and innovation, as we can see in countless things that we take for granted such as computers, restaurants, shoes, package delivery services, hotels, video games, toothbrushes, smart phones, and on and on and on. But the competition that Ford, Broad, and Gerstner are talking about isn’t that kind of competition – you know, the free-market kind we’d get from universal school choice – but state education monopolies ”competing” for federal taxpayer dollars.

To be fair, a bit of competition between states is a real, potential byproduct of federalism. It isn’t even remotely akin, however, to competition “in athletics and in business,” as Ford, Broad, and Gerstner put it. No, it is much closer to a contest between Beavis and Butthead to see who can do nothing the longest than a battle for supremacy between the Patriots and Colts, or Apple and Blackberry.

Unfortunately, two of these authors have tried to sell us hopeless, deep-inside-the-box reforms before.

While Ford has supported DC’s voucher program and has some school-choice credibility, Broad was co-funder – along with fellow education-windmill-tilter Bill Gates – of the milquetoast Strong American Schools. That initiative offered the same top-down, or just plain trite, “reforms” that have been limply proffered to us for decades, and it’s Ed in ‘08 effort to move education to the forefront of the 2008 presidential campaign was a dud.

How about Gerstner? Last we heard from him, he was calling for the elimination of almost all of what little competition there is in the public schooling status quo. In a December 2008 WSJ piece, he declared that the nation should have just 70 school districts (versus about 15,000 today and 130,000 in the late 1920s), national academic standards and tests, and a longer school year. In other words, exactly the kind of centralization that has proven a total disaster for decades…only on steroids!

Race to the Top, frankly, is a sham, and these guys can’t seem to figure out what competition is or whether they actually like it. Maybe they should think all this through and get back to us when they’re done.