The late radio and television pioneer David Sarnoff once remarked, “Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in men.”
The first part seems incontestable to me; the second is highly debatable.
I have always believed that competition pushes people, companies, and organizations to higher levels of achievement. I was always driven to be the best, to be first among our competitors. We competed in the arenas of stock price, market share, and reputation. But the other guy didn’t set the higher bar. We set it ourselves.
My current careers in philanthropy and collecting contemporary art involve competition of a different sort. I’m competing against myself again—but it’s not for profit. It’s for the satisfaction that comes from making positive change and enriching more lives each year.
Competition in business benefits the customer by stimulating better products and service and lower prices. The same holds for higher education, which has benefited from the strong rivalries between private and public institutions for faculty, students, and donors. In my hometown, for example, I doubt UCLA would be as exemplary a school as it is today were it not for the presence of USC and Caltech, among others.
But America’s K–12 public schools have, until recently, been a monopoly. Most alternatives, such as private education or home schooling, are available only to families with resources. The rise of high-performing ...