Competition is the essential element in improving the price and quality of goods and services. It’s surprising how many business leaders believe this principle until the topic turns to education. For some reason, they treat this one service sector as if it were immune to the benefits of competition. They defend the current system rather than embrace an approach that would allow schools to improve by having to compete with each other.

If competition in education were allowed, schools would have to do as other service providers do—attract and keep customers, in this case students and their parents, by constantly improving their services. If they didn’t improve, they would risk losing those students to other providers. That is a healthy incentive to improve.

Knowing someone else could draw away our customers is discomforting, but it’s that very discomfort that drives us to pay attention to our customers—and to find better or more efficient ways to do what we do. It is naive to think the education service sector is any different. The result would be better service for the students and better value for taxpayers.

What about children whose parents “don’t care enough about their children” to send them to a better school? We believe only a small fraction of parents would fit that category. The problem is that they have never had that chance! In the relatively few places in America where parents are allowed to choose, there has been much greater demand than expected. For example, numerous public charter schools in other states have had far more applicants than vacancies. An organization in Jackson, Mississippi that offers privately-funded scholarships for low-income children expected 100-200 applicants for the first year of the program. Instead, they received almost 6,000!

A program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has become wildly popular among low-income parents. Since 1990, through one of the few publicly-funded voucher programs in the country, these parents have been able to choose any public or private school, including religious schools, for their children. Longtime Democratic Mayor John Norquist said the parents were tired of waiting for public schools alone to find the right methods, especially when the parents had no choice. He said, “Parents don’t want to be a part of some social experiment. They want their kids to be able to read and write.” Some find that in public schools, some in private schools.

This is not an attack on public schools in general. Even Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, the father of the “voucher” concept, said he never presumed that private schools would be better than public schools. He simply believed there should be competition, and parents should be able to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs. Even within the public system—and without vouchers—there are opportunities to allow parents to act on their responsibility to ensure their children are educated.

When government officials recognize that parents are responsible for educating and raising their own children, and that publicly funded schools should not undermine the parents, they will govern with humility and restraint.

This is an excerpt from Governing By Principle, MCPP’s ten principles to guide public policy.