Commentary

Bureaucracy Hurts Reform

By David F. Salisbury
This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Public schools need improvement; that we know. Changes involving smaller classes, merit pay, whole-school reform, value-added testing, computers in classrooms and other innovations all hold promise. There is no lack of good ideas for reform. The problem is that public schools are not really all that interested in finding the most efficient or effective improvements. Why? Because they have no incentive to change.

In other enterprises, entrepreneurs constantly look for better ways to use their resources. They change; they adapt. Competition drives them to try fresh ideas and improve their product or service. Then consumers decide, by their choices, what works best. No central authority or bureaucracy is needed to tell people what to produce or how to make it better. Consumers will do that. In the real world of business, you sink or swim on your ability to satisfy customers. It should be the same with schools.

But public schools don’t work this way. If you are a public school principal, you work in a state-controlled monopoly. You don’t face the rigors of real work competition. In the public schools, you can fail repeatedly and the tax money keeps rolling in. You don’t lose customers if your service is lousy, and you don’t gain customers if your service is great. There is no competition, no consumer choice, thus there is no improvement.

Some schools have developed reform programs showing great promise. But a disinterested school-district bureaucracy abandoned even many of those. This is the expected response to innovation in a bureaucracy: initial applause, followed by disinterest and abandonment. Until schools are forced to sink or swim in a free market, like everybody else, reforms won’t happen.

The only way to fix things and give students and their parents what they want is to end the monopoly and put public schools in a competitive marketplace. There, consumers have the power to choose schools they like. Choice is what drives improvement in every other industry. Without it, public school reforms will go nowhere, stuck in a web of bureaucracy.

David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.