By Tom Still

MADISON – The Milwaukee Brewers won half of their baseball games this year, the Green Bay Packers have finally won a football game, and the Milwaukee Bucks may contend for pro basketball’s 2006 playoffs. They are all “small-market teams” competing in professional leagues governed by rules that prevent big-market teams from dominating. Is there a lesson there for public education?

That intriguing question is posed in a recent white paper by Bruce Meredith, the general counsel for Wisconsin’s teachers union and a veteran of the state’s struggle over how to pay for public schools. Meredith’s paper, “A league of their own: What education policy makers can learn from sports competition,” is a thoughtful contribution to the debate. 

Meredith doesn’t dispute that public education could benefit from quality-enhancing competition, but he questions whether unfettered market-based reforms are the answer. Instead, he says education can learn from the regulated market example set by professional sports.

“Competition and deregulation may improve education, but only if carefully implemented and controlled,” wrote Meredith, who served as interim director of the Wisconsin Education Association Council during a recent leadership transition. “Sports leagues, which are grounded in competition, have learned that only fair and carefully controlled competition can improve the quality of play and produce long-term, self-sustaining successful franchises.”

Consider this mission statement of Major League Baseball, which has created rules to curb the influence of a few wealthy owners in a few mega-cities. In a recent report, baseball said the purpose of sports leagues is to “protect the public interest in communities of varying sizes with different market conditions in order to compete against each other with a reasonable opportunity to succeed.”

 In fact, that happens in baseball. Not even George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees win all of the time, and small-market teams such as the Minnesota Twins occasionally win the World Series. The best players can become free agents and earn a lot more, but within limits. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s not a stacked deck, either.

Meredith argues that’s precisely how public education should function. It should not be run as a commodity product in a totally free market, but as a service to society provided under market rules that give all “teams” – schools and the children within them – a realistic chance to win.

Meredith says the existing rules of play in education aren’t uniform or clear. The creation of private-school voucher programs, while founded on the notion of competitive choice, have created situations in which private schools can “de-select” students who are too hard to educate. Rules also vary in the administration of charter schools and public school “choice,” which allow some transfers among schools and school districts. Finally, the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” has imposed another set of rules on schools previously guided by state and local standards.

The combination “makes it difficult to determine whether deregulated schools are providing a better education or simply educating better students,” Meredith wrote.

The “big-market teams” in public education are those school districts that have a stronger tax base and parents who are willing and able to pitch in, not only for their own kids, but for others in the system. The “small-market teams” are those with a weak property-tax base and kids who are harder to educate – and whose possible failure as adults will hurt society as a whole. While the rules of public education financing shouldn’t punish the big-market teams, they need to ensure the small-market teams are succeeding, too. Otherwise, the entire “league” collapses for a lack of quality.

So, is Meredith asking Bud Selig to return home to Wisconsin and run for state school superintendent? Not exactly, but he thinks people on all sides of the debate over public schools could benefit from thinking about a competitive model that operates within the foul lines. Perhaps that should begin with education’s various teams forming a “political league” to agree on a common agenda and rules.

If they don’t, some of the rival leagues within education run the danger of becoming the next XFL.