The power of choice

Andy Matthews

Every week, NPRI President Andy Matthews writes a column for NPRI's week-in-review email. If you are not getting our emails, which contain our latest commentaries and news stories, you can sign up here to receive them. Just enter your email in the box next to the testimonial.

The power of choice

There are lots of laws and principles we all take for granted in life, among them the laws of nature, gravity and physics. I know the winter will bring colder weather, I know I’m in no danger of flying out of Earth’s atmosphere if I jump into the air and I know that walking into a brick wall will hurt.

These laws are universal across cultures, and indeed, they’re so omnipresent that we rarely if ever take the time to consider them. And that’s entirely understandable.

In free societies, however, there are other laws we take for granted as well — even though we shouldn’t. Chief among them is a basic law of economics: that competition produces quality.

We assume that when we go to the grocery store, for instance, we’ll have a multitude of cereal brands from which to choose. We assume something similar when we go to a shoe store or a car dealership. And the principle applies as well when we decide which restaurant to eat at, which yoga studio to go to or even which church to attend. Just as important is that we know, inherently, that the fact of having more options is to our benefit. Our power of choice ensures that those who provide goods and services must compete for our business by striving to meet our needs, desires and demands. In the ultimate win-win situation, producers reap financial rewards in exchange for making consumers happy.

This freedom is fundamental in our society, even as it remains a foreign concept in much of the world. It explains, more than any other factor, why prosperity is so widespread in some places and tragically lacking in others.

Still, there’s one area of even our society where this element of choice has long been curiously absent: the realm of education.

Just as our ability to choose which restaurant to eat at increases the likelihood that we’ll be satisfied with our meal, so too would the ability to choose where to send our children to school produce better results and happier parents and students. For decades, however, our education policy has contained the assumption that the realities of markets and economics stop at the schoolhouse door.

Most children attend the schools to which the government assigns them. Knowing that parents have only a limited ability to remove a child from a particular school and send him or her elsewhere insulates our schools from competition and thus eliminates an important incentive to perform at a high level. The result of this approach has been a calamitous collapse in educational quality from coast to coast.

Fortunately, a movement to empower parents with the freedom to decide for themselves which type of education would be best for their kids is gaining traction all across the country. This week — dubbed “National School Choice Week” by the proponents of greater educational freedom — has featured a nationwide awareness campaign to inform policymakers as well as ordinary citizens of the need to inject more choice and competition into our education systems.

It’s a movement that must succeed, and I’m proud to say that we at the Nevada Policy Research Institute are already engaged in the fight for increased parental choice in education.

I don’t want to spend too much time here going over the extensive data demonstrating quite clearly the many benefits that school choice produces. For that, I’ll simply direct you to an excellent commentary on the subject that Victor Joecks wrote earlier this week, as well as an excerpt from NPRI’s Solutions 2013 publication that we highlighted recently.

I simply want to make this point when it comes to the debate over school choice: Let’s use our heads.

We see every day the positive effects of making producers compete for consumers. We’d dismiss as absurd any argument in favor of the government creating a monopolistic, one-size-fits-all approach to deciding where we shop, what we eat or what kinds of movies we watch.

So let’s not be so foolish as to accept the line — propagated most persistently by the teacher unions and their preferred politicians — that the best way to improve educational quality is to continue to throw more money at a system that lacks the most essential ingredient for excellence: parental choice.

Look, we all know Nevada’s record is dismal when it comes to student achievement. You’d probably have a hard time getting liberals and conservatives to agree that today is Friday, but we all agree that the results our state is seeing on the education front are unacceptable.

Now it’s time for us all to recognize the clear solutions. Over the next few months, Nevada’s lawmakers will have an opportunity to do the right thing on education policy — to provide parents with more choices when it comes to where and how their children are educated. It’s an opportunity that, for our children’s sake, they can’t afford to miss.

Thanks for reading, and take care.

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

Remember, if you'd like to receive the latest from NPRI, sign-up for our emails here.