Freedom and School Choice in American Education

No part of American life is more politicized than education. Governments demand that parents turn their children over to approved schools at a tender age. The parents and all other taxpayers (whether they have children or not) must pay taxes to support the “public education system.” Government schools are for the most part run for the benefit of the vast numbers of teachers and administrators employed by them. The cost is high and the educational outcomes for most students are startlingly poor, but the education establishment (often referred to by some in the school reform movement as “the blob”) is adept at hiding both the costs and bad results behind a blizzard of slick public relations events and releases.

The government education system is a lot like the old Soviet Union’s agriculture system: high costs, lousy results, all protected by official propaganda. Perhaps America’s situation is even worse: At least the Russians knew they were hungry. Many Americans actually believe that their children are getting a good education.

How can we escape from this hideous system? This book brings together eight papers delivered at a conference at Clemson University in 2008. There is a palpable tension in the book between reformers who think that significant improvements are possible within the existing, government-dominated framework (through vouchers, tax credits, and alternative schools) and those who believe that no real progress is possible as long as education is handled by government. The debate is similar to that over the inefficiencies of socialism several generations ago, between economists who argued that socialism could be made to work pretty well and those who argued that the State had to stop trying to manage the economy altogether.

The first chapter, by University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene, takes the position that learning gains can be made within the status quo and that they are worth fighting for because it is imperative that we do whatever we can to improve children’s chances for a better life. Greene contends that “every initiative that expands parental control over education of their children is a positive step,” and thus he favors policies in which governments give parents vouchers enabling them to pay for education at nongovernment schools. Greene is adamant that we must not let the best become the enemy of the good; any forward motion toward expanded parental choice is beneficial.

At the polar opposite of Greene’s view is that of Freeman editor Sheldon Richman, who argues that “school choice” is dangerous because it diverts our focus away from another imperative, “that the state not be permitted to meddle with either the supply or demand side of the market process.” Quoting the British scientist and social commentator Joseph Priestley, Richman maintains that “bureaucrats can’t help but stifle the stumbling, groping experimental process that is indispensable to making valuable discoveries in educational techniques.” And there is another high cost—as John Stuart Mill observed, “a general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another.” In Richman’s view, it’s a waste of time and resources to fight for changes within the State’s schooling system. Vouchers, for example, are apt to lead to further government regulation of the small private school market.

In the final chapter, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice observes that many of the victories of the school choice movement have proven to be fragile.“The blob” is terrible at educating students, but works furiously and effectively to subvert or dilute any changes that diminish its power. A good recent example is the teachers’-union-led attack that ousted reform-minded mayor Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C., and his iconoclastic school superintendent, Michelle Rhee. But instead of concluding that the right reform strategy is to separate school and State, Forster urges activists to work for “universal choice.” That doesn’t mean the sort of universal choice enjoyed by, say, music consumers, who have unfettered choice among innumerable sellers, however. Forster means voucher programs that are available everywhere. After what he had written about “the blob’s” single-minded pursuit of protecting its monopoly, it’s hard to see why he’s optimistic about the eventual success of a “universal choice” agenda.

Back on the other side Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson explains why America needs a true market in education. Coulson, who wrote a book on the history of free-market education, asks, “Is there any sort of financial assistance program that can assure universal access to a free educational marketplace without destroying the conditions necessary for that market?” He answers in the negative—government funding will inevitably undermine competition—and advocates focusing on the goal of having parents pay for most if not all of the cost of the schools their children attend.

I wish I had space to discuss all eight chapters of this very thought-provoking book in detail. Read it yourself!

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