The Blackboard Monopolists

CHICAGO – US President Barack Obama, like many Western leaders nowadays, made improving education one of his main promises to voters during his election campaign. But other domestic issues – health-care reform, budget battles, and high unemployment – have understandably loomed larger. And the United States is not alone: education reform is being held up in the United Kingdom and continental Europe as well.

Improving education remains one of the clearest ways that governments can make a lasting positive economic impact. A well-functioning education system is the most effective way to help equip people with the knowledge and skills they need to boost incomes and compete in a globalized economy. The key to such a system is embracing the role that competition can play in delivering better education to students.

That means, of course, considering the role of teacher unions as well – an issue that elicits very different reactions from the left and the right. On the left, many worry that President Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and other leaders are already focusing too much on increasing accountability: they view any reforms that treat teachers as part of the problem with suspicion. On the right, it often seems the opposite: any policy – such as vouchers – must be good if teachers oppose it.

Common ground can be hard to find in such debates if both sides disagree fiercely over basic principles. But competition is one principle that ought to command broad political support, because of the benefits that it tends to deliver for ordinary people. Many on the left nowadays seem especially confused about the advantages of competition, and many progressives’ approach to education is an excellent example of this.