The dynamic of school choice improves the whole system because competition favors the consumer in every market. The market for education is no different.
Competition has certainly improved the products and services of other industries. In the 1980s, U.S. automobile manufacturers were faced with increasing competition from Japanese car makers, who produced safer, more efficient, and more reliable products. In response to losing significant market share, U.S. automobile manufacturers simultaneously formed partnerships with foreign manufacturers and launched extensive efforts to improve their products.27 Thus, competition brought about improvement in products offered by all manufacturersboth national and foreign. Today, U.S. manufacturers again lead the world in many markets.
Now consider the Lansing School District discussed above. In response to "losing" 745 students to other districts and charter schools in the 1996-97 year, the Lansing School District is creating more options to offer its residents. The school district has added a sixth grade to one of its existing elementary schools and plans to pilot several more K-6 schools in the coming year. In addition, the school district is considering offering all-day kindergartens in some of its elementary schools. Finally, in the ultimate tribute to the power of consumer choice, the district has launched an advertising campaign to showcase its new and improved offerings.28 In the case of the Lansing School District, the exercise of choice options by about 700 students has generated better programs for the over 17,000 who remain in the traditional schools.29
One of the strengths of parental choice is thatjust as a restaurant need not lose all of its customers before the chef gets the messageeven a small number of students choosing an alternative school can send a powerful message to traditional public school administrators.
The logic that choice options help even those students who stay in the traditional public school system is now overwhelming. A recent "Editorial Notebook" column in The New York Times, subtitled "How Choice Changes Public Schools," confirms how even mainstream opinion has been moved by the evidence now at hand:
In Milwaukee, the threat of expanded competition has worked precisely as Milton Friedman predicted. A system that once treated parents with contempt has begun to answer their calls and embrace local experiments through a charter school and other partnerships with community groups. A city that once rebuffed requests for public Montessori schools now has them. Said John Gardner of the Milwaukee school board: "A system that has been arrogant and indifferent for 20 years has suddenly got religion." 30