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Paroxysms of Choice


The decade of the 1950s in the United States can seem eerily familiar to us now. It was also a period of unparalleled prosperity for most Americans, a time when America seemed the unquestionable master of the world. Americans showed little interest in international affairs or in politics generally, preferring to live comfortably in their suburbs, to upgrade their cars and other possessions regularly, and to enjoy the continual display of sports and entertainment on their television sets.

When it comes to issues of education, what we are hearing today also recalls the Fifties. At the beginning of that decade, there was harsh criticism of the “progressive approach” that had seeped its way into elementary education. The historian Arthur Bestor blasted American schools in his much-cited Educational Wastelands (1953), and Rudolf Flesch seized the attention of millions of concerned citizens with his explanations in Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955). Today we read analogous denunciations—by polemicists such as Lynne Cheney—of “whole language” approaches to teaching reading and “fuzzy” approaches to the teaching of mathematics. In 1957, the quality of American education was thrown into further doubt by the unexpected launching of Sputnik; today, anxiety is raised by the poor test performances of American children when compared to children in Europe and East Asia.

A far more obscure incident in American education occurred in 1955. That year, Milton Friedman, a rising star among American economists, wrote an essay entitled “The Role of Government in Education” (more widely circulated in his 1962 volume Capitalism and Freedom). Reflecting a widespread view among academics about the generally mediocre quality of American public education, Friedman contended that the schools, sluggish and monopolistic, were inherently incapable of reforming themselves. Friedman called for the opening of education to market forces. If energized groups of citizens were given access to public funds, he argued, they would establish schools that were distinctive and that embraced high standards. Competition among the new schools would serve to elevate their overall level and also stimulate the remaining public schools to reform themselves or risk oblivion. The upshot would be a healthier society, and, not coincidentally, profits for the most enterprising. A half-century before its time, Milton Friedman had written a charter for the changing educational landscape that we are witnessing in America today.

Nearly thirty years later, in 1983, a presidential commission on education issued a deservedly influential report called “A Nation at Risk.” Chairman David Gardner, then at the University of Utah, and his fellow commissioners argued that American public schools were mediocre at best, and in too many cases, disgraceful. They indicted curriculums that were unchallenging and covered too many subjects too superficially. They drew sharp and unfavorable comparisons with the sober, hard-working, high-achieving students in other industrialized countries, both in Europe and in East Asia. In an apt if somewhat hyperbolic passage, the panel declared, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war…. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”1

During the past two decades the undistinguished quality of American public education—as evidenced, for example, by unimpressive SAT scores, flat performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and continuing lackluster results in comparison with other nations—has become an ever greater concern, not least to editorial writers and to corporate executives looking for skilled labor. This concern has a variety of motives, some more praiseworthy than others. Among them are desires to remedy the deplorable conditions of the nation’s inner cities; to improve the competitiveness of the workforce; to enable one’s own children to succeed in the marketplace; to ensure that all children will be treated equitably. In my own view, there is also a covert desire that is only thinly disguised: to undermine confidence in the capacity of our public institutions to carry out important social functions.

At the start of a new century, most informed Americans agree on a few points about education. First, by most of the measures we have, the general quality of American education has not changed very much over the last two decades. Second, on the average, both independent schools and parochial schools are somewhat more successful than their public counterparts in educating children. The reasons for this success are hotly disputed. One pertinent fact is that parochial school teachers earn less than their public or independent school counterparts and so parochial schools are accessible to families with strong educational concerns and limited budgets. Another is that independent and sectarian institutions do not have to enroll or keep youngsters who are likely to pose problems of any sort in the class.

Education in the well-to-do suburbs is reasonably good. Because of “savage inequalities,” to borrow the title of Jonathan Kozol’s book on well-, and inadequately, financed schools, education (and life generally) in the inner-city public schools remains shamefully deficient. Those schools are generally in poor physical condition, have inadequate supplies, nonfunctioning technology, transient and often absent students, and teachers who are poorly qualified, quick to “burn out,” and ready to transfer at the first opportunity. By the end of secondary school, students in other developed countries know more than their American counterparts (again, how much more they know, and why, is disputed).2

The debate centers on how to improve the generally agreed-on situation. For every pundit (or political office seeker) who calls for better teacher education or larger budgets for poor-performing schools or districts, others cry out for more tests of teachers, more alternative forms of certification, or the abolition of teachers’ unions and schools of education.


What can be done in a nation that continues to be concerned about education, that is divided about which steps to pursue, that is suspicious of national solutions and relatively tolerant of local experiments, and that has recently been drawn to “market solutions”? In retrospect, it is not surprising that in a decade resembling the 1950s, many Americans would pick up the advice of Milton Friedman and initiate an ambitious effort to create alternative schools and alternative forms of education. In 1990 two social scientists, John Chubb and Terry Moe, issued a widely read book in which they called for the establishment of a marketplace where schools would compete for students.3 They recommended that there be a variety of loosely regulated, publicly funded schools, while parents could also use public money to send their children to private schools.

Of course, Americans of means have long had private options, chief among them independent schools and parochial schools, which, together, enroll about 10 percent of American students. But with the exception of New Zealand, whose experiment I will discuss later, no country has ever contemplated the variety of schools that may soon be established in the US.

It makes sense to think about this new national experiment as having two broadly distinct camps. The charter school movement is an effort to create new schools that have a looser connection with the state. The new schools are publicly funded and remain accountable to a public jurisdiction. That is, a state or local municipality (or in some cases a university) grants a charter for a certain number of years (usually three to five years) to a community group, to run a school. In exchange for a loosening of control, the new, legally autonomous institution agrees to certain forms of public accountability—e.g., curriculums have to be specified and be consistent with guidelines, proceeds and expenses must be reported, statewide tests have to be administered. The school receives funds based on the number of children who attend, with the amount of transferred money equaling the estimated per student cost in the district. All who live in its jurisdiction can apply; and if the number of aspiring students exceeds the number of places, admission is determined by lottery or some other seemingly equitable procedure, such as first-come-first-served.

The other camp, the voucher movement, is a means of distributing money so that individual families can select the school of their choice. Families receive a voucher from the state, municipality, or a private funder which they can then use to “purchase” education for their children. The amount of the voucher is generally a few thousand dollars per child, usually somewhat less than the per capita expenditures in the district. In cases where the voucher does not cover tuition, the parents or an outside agency must supplement the voucher. Sometimes choice is limited to public schools outside a child’s own public school district; more often, it extends to private nondenominational institutions (chiefly independent, nonprofit schools); and, in the most controversial case, families can choose to attend religious (sectarian) schools. Both charter and voucher schools can be run by for-profit companies, though the chartered institution itself must be nonprofit.

Hundreds of books and articles are bound to appear about these movements. At this point we can only begin to look to the major experiments undertaken so far and ask how successful they have been. To what extent is a market-based educational system a wise or a foolish undertaking?


The charter school movement seems a quintessentially American enterprise, one that would not have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America in the 1830s. The Constitution provides for locally controlled education, and the US has a strong tradition of creating voluntary associa-tions. It makes sense for individuals or groups of Americans to found their own schools. Indeed, the “common school” tradition favored by the influential mid-nineteenth-century educator Horace Mann has always left considerable latitude with respect to the precise nature of those schools; and when sufficiently dissatisfied with the school nearby, Americans have often looked elsewhere if they could. There has never been a strong sense, almost reflexive in most other established nations, that there is “one best school” or “one best system” which should encompass all the young in a society (including those who have immigrated from far-off places).

When most Americans (if not most pundits) were reasonably satisfied with their own schools, and with the performance of local schools generally (as seems to have been the case in the 1950s, for example), there has been relatively little demand for experiment. Even today, studies of the American public reveal considerable satisfaction on the part of most citizens, particularly middle-class citizens, with their local (or neighborhood) school; for example, a Gallup poll of September 1999 reports that 71 percent of Americans feel that their local schools are doing a good job.4

But in recent years, dissatisfaction has been growing and pressures have been building up for a richer set of choices. A series of studies summarized by David Kearns and James Harvey in A Legacy of Learning yields this conclusion: the same people who may approve of the school around the corner are far from satisfied with what is thought to go on in most of the approximately 87,000 public schools in this country and with the “products” of those schools.

  1. 1

    National Commission on Excellence in Education, Washington, D.C., April 1983, p. 5.

  2. 2

    Certain authorities are not persuaded that American schools perform poorly, in light of their own history and their differences from other countries. See especially David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myth, Fraud, and the Attack on American Schools (Addison-Wesley, 1995); and the writings of Gerald Bracey (for example, “Why Can’t They Be Like We Were?,” Phi Delta Kappan, October 1991, pp. 104-117). I do not subscribe in most respects to this apologetic literature.

  3. 3

    Politics, Markets, and American Schools (Brookings Institution Press, 1990).

  4. 4

    See Richard Rothstein, “An Allegiance to Public Schools,” The New York Times, March 15, 2000, p. B11; Phi Delta Kappan, 1996, quoted in Witte, p. 6; Frontline, PBS, March 23, 2000.

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