- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

The Microsoft case has occupied the attention of the Justice Department and legal system for untold thousands of hours and captured the attention of millions. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the case, from talk show hosts, to political candidates, to the average guy who spends a few hours on his computer. The opinions are varied, but there is a universal reaction among education reformers: Why isn't anyone addressing a real monopoly, in fact the biggest, most powerful monopoly in the world the government school monopoly?
If the Justice Department truly believes that competition is good for consumers, then perhaps it should take a good hard look at what effect the school monopoly is having on some very important customers our children. According to recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, 63 percent of black fourth graders, 60 percent of poor children and 37 percent of all children in the fourth grade essentially cannot read. These are the results that came from an enormous total education spending increase of 72 percent (in inflation-adjusted dollars) since 1980.
How can this be? We have drastically increased spending, decreased class size, increased teachers' salaries and seen countless pieces of state and federal legislation designed to improve academic achievement in our nation's schools. Do we have bad teachers? Dumb kids? Dumb parents? How could the problem be so widespread?
While there are thousands of smaller issues affecting performance, there is one all-encompassing problem the system is incredibly and pervasively flawed it is a monopoly. And we all know that a true monopoly turns out a bad product at an exorbitant price. In fact, if you have a good product at a fair price it is pretty safe to say that you couldn't possibly have a monopoly. Which is, of course, why so many school reformers shake their heads in disbelief as the government goes after Microsoft a company that turns out great products at competitive prices, and ignores a monopoly that is jeopardizing the very future of our country by short-changing millions of American school children.
The federal government was recently dealt a serious blow by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington in its overturning of a lower court ruling in the antitrust case against Microsoft. The court ruled that Microsoft's activities did not warrant the punishment the government sought, and, most importantly, that consumers were not harmed by Microsoft's activities.
Using that standard, there is a strong case to be made that the government education system is a far better example of an entrenched monopoly than Microsoft. First of all, Microsoft faces stiff competition in every market it enters, from operating systems to personal finance software to office and Internet browsing software. The government education system faces none, except from private schools, which are now only open to those families who can afford it out of their own good fortune. Less fortunate families who cannot afford private schools simply have no choice in the matter. They are hostages to the entrenched education establishment even as their hard-earned tax dollars pay that establishment's salaries (while many public school teachers use their salaries to send their own kids to private schools).
Microsoft has always improved its products with an eye toward consumer demand. As customers want better products for lower prices, Microsoft because of the fierce competition it faces produces. Windows has undergone several revisions and improvements over the years, for instance, yet some applications within Windows were more expensive on their own than the platform today. At the same time, schools grow more expensive every year, while test scores go down. Taxpayers want better schools for less money, yet the non-competitive, government and union controlled system will not produce. Changes in curricula seem to be more designed toward social engineering or a political agenda than producing better results.
If the federal government really wanted to take down an insidious monopoly, it should stop bothering innovative, competitive companies and start taking a look at what the government-run education system has done to a generation of American children. Maybe the Justice Department's Antitrust Division should take a trip to some of our poorest-performing schools to find out the true definition of "consumer harm."
American prosperity, innovation and quality of life are the benefits of the economic freedom we enjoy in virtually every other market. But those who have a stake in protecting the government education monopoly want us to believe that, although free markets work in every other area of American life, the K-12 system is the exception.
It is time for parents, politicians and the press to demand action. Let every American pick the best and safest school for their child through a variety of school choice alternatives: tuition tax credits, vouchers, private scholarship tax credits, charter schools, home schools and public school choice. And then we will see what we have seen in every other area of our great country: free people in free markets creating excellence.

Lori Yaklin is executive director of the Michigan School Board Leaders Association.

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