Would the Schools Work Better If They Outlawed All Competitors?

In the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy praises the “profound egalitarian insights” and “radical oneness” of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (and billionaire Warren Buffett):

“I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty,” Rhee wrote. “But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education. ‘Make private schools illegal,’ he said, ‘and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.’ “

Milloy’s not satisfied that Rhee is taking on entrenched interests, firing principals and teachers who aren’t doing a good job, and apparently actually improving the schools in the District of Columbia. No, he’s attracted to the “radical concept” of outlawing private schools and forcing everyone in the District into the same schools, with no hope of escape. There would be one method of escape, of course: moving to the suburbs.  And you can bet that lots more people would do that if Milloy and Rhee got their way.

I wonder what a total government monopoly on education would look like. Are Buffett and Rhee right that a government monopoly forced on every citizen would work well? Would work so well that it would “solve the problems of urban education … and reverse generational poverty”?

Well, one answer might be glimpsed on the same page B3 where part of Milloy’s column appeared. In an adjacent column, columnist John Kelly discussed his “Kafkaesque” five-hour visit to the state of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration:

I was at the MVA. I was in Hell.

I know that complaining about the MVA or the DMV is the last refuge of a scoundrel columnist, but I don’t care. You don’t know what it was like. You weren’t there, man. I spent five hours at the Beltsville MVA on Thursday. Five hours. I could have driven to New York in that time….

I thought: Can this really be happening? Can I really have stepped into a Kafka story? Shouldn’t every counter be filled with employees working as fast as possible? Shouldn’t management be out there helping, and Maryland state troopers, too? This is the Katrina of waiting, people.

The MVA, of course, is a monopoly government bureaucracy. Everyone must go there – CEOs, diplomats, even Washington Post columnists. And yet, somehow, that has not led to the MVA equivalent of solving problems and reversing poverty. Five hours to get a drivers’ license just might be worse performance than that of the public schools.

It’s the system, Mr. Milloy and Ms. Rhee. Monopolies don’t have much incentive to improve. Give everyone the chance to go to a different supplier, and then you’ll see improvement. Giant Food wouldn’t last long if it took five hours to buy your groceries – because it has competitors. But as long as the schools are a near-monopoly, and the MVA or DMV is a total monopoly, don’t expect real improvement.