Commentary

A Real Competitiveness Initiative

With formerly closed nations now tapping the power of the free market, American paranoia about competition from abroad has been growing rapidly. The anxiety spiked recently with publication of the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm, a report that suggests globalization threatens “the economic and strategic leadership that the United States has enjoyed since World War II,” and laments that “workers in virtually every sector must now face competitors who live just a mouse-click away….”

Reality, thankfully, is not nearly as scary as the prognostications of the fear mongers. When people abroad produce goods or services more cheaply than we can, and sell them to us, they get much needed employment and increase their quality of life. Americans, in turn, are able to purchase goods at the lowest prices possible and “trade up” to better jobs. In other words, the free market doesn’t pit China or India against the United States, it enables Chinese, Indians, and Americans to work together – usually without even realizing it – for the betterment of all.

President Bush understands these virtues of free trade, as evidenced when he bucked the doomsayers in his state of the union address and declared that protectionism and big government lead “toward a stagnant and second-rate economy.” Unfortunately, in the same address Bush went on to prove that he still hasn’t fully accepted the critical importance of free markets, especially when it comes to education. In calling for an “American Competitiveness Initiative,” the president used the specter of globalization he had just dismissed to justify escalating central planning in education even further than he’s taken it with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Among other things, President Bush’s initiative would create federal programs to identify and promulgate “best practices” for math instruction, and add science to the list of subjects on which the federal government judges schools.

A U.S. Department of Education overview of the President’s proposed 2007 budget summarizes the scope of his plans: “A comprehensive problem demands a comprehensive solution, extending from kindergarten through high school graduation.” While the rest of the world is turning to Adam Smith, it seems America is falling back on Chairman Mao.

Using the threat of international economic competition to bolster federal control of education is nothing new. It happened in 1983, after the federally commissioned report A Nation at Risk admonished that “our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world,” as well as in the early 1990s, when George Bush the elder called for national academic standards and tests in order to better compete with Japan.

Centralizing control of schools might make sense, of course, if it actually worked. However, since the federal government jumped wholeheartedly into the education business in the mid-1960s, national math and reading scores have been largely stagnant, and America’s standing in international comparisons, especially for high school students, has remained dismal. And don’t think NCLB is going to help. In the law’s short lifetime, reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have stayed flat, and math results, while better, have hardly been spectacular. Moreover, even if scores were skyrocketing, it would be impossible to determine if NCLB were responsible, given the countless variables that affect academic achievement.

There is one policy, though, that has been proven to bolster achievement: school choice. As University of Arkansas professor Jay P. Greene reports, there have been eight random-assignment studies – the “gold standard” of empirical research in the social sciences – conducted on voucher programs, and every one has shown that vouchers have positive academic effects.

This isn’t new information for many of America’s competitors, including such traditional social welfare states as Sweden and the Netherlands, which have been allowing parents to select their children’s schools for years. Even Japan, the great threat of the 1990s, has been deregulating and decentralizing its school system. Why? Because over the last decade-and-a-half or so they just haven’t been able to compete.

In the end, then, it seems that the only real threat from economic freedom abroad stems from irrational reactions by our leaders at home. If we can keep them from hobbling our own ability to compete, America will do just fine.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.