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.

Looking within the schools themselves, the public worries particularly about safety. Metal detectors are now routine in middle and secondary schools. The public also expresses concern that most teachers are neither well trained (according to one study, up to 60 percent cannot pass basic tests) nor hard-working, and are unwilling to confront (or to “engage” or “tame”) difficult students. Some citizens worry that “fluff,” politically correct (or incorrect), or religious or ideologically offensive teaching mater-ials are being used in class. Others—close in their views to those who favor home schooling—want to participate more actively in the running of the schools or to find a student body that looks more like their own children. Dropout rates are unacceptably high (25 percent or higher in many districts) and many employers find that the graduates of our schools lack the skills they are looking for. We are told by William J. Bennett that “nearly half of all high school graduates have not mastered seventh-grade arithmetic.”5 American secondary school graduates are said to be ill-informed, barely able to communicate orally or in writing, irresponsible, uncivil, and subject to laziness, if not a life of crime.

Charter schools are a direct popular reponse to such impressions. And despite some early (and vocal) reservations, enthusiasm for charter schools has cut across many familiar divisions. Teachers’ unions now support such institutions, at least rhetorically6 ; Presidents Bush and Clinton and presidential candidates Bush and Gore also advocate them, and indeed have sometimes competed with one another to see who can call for more charters in more of the 15,000 school districts across the land.

Looking more closely, one finds distinct differences in the patterns of the nearly 1,700 charter schools set up in thirty-four states during the last ten years. Some states, like Massachusetts and New York, strictly control how many charters there are and have quite explicit requirements for the chartered schools, whether for their methods of student selection, their curriculum, or their accountability. Others, like Arizona, have hundreds of charter schools and very little by way of surveillance over them. Some jurisdictions are hesitant about involving for-profit companies, like the Edison Schools or Advantage Schools, while others welcome them.

The head cheerleader for the charter school movement is Chester Finn, a policymaker and analyst who now heads his own educational think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Extremely knowledgeable about American education, and extremely opinionated as well, Finn has been an unqualified enthusiast of the charter movement, which he apparently regards as the “last, best chance” to save public education in America. From the earliest days of the movement, Finn was issuing glowing reports to all who would inquire; and now, in Charter Schools in Action, he and his associates Bruno Manno and Gregg Vanourek say that they “have gathered and analyzed more information about this reform strategy than anyone else. While the charter scene is too dynamic for any account to remain definitive for long, we respectfully suggest that these pages come as close as is presently possible.”

Like many battlefield reports, this one is distinctly upbeat. By nearly every known standard, according to the authors, the charter schools come out very well. They are said to attract families of all backgrounds; the families (and their children) report that they are happy, much happier than they were in their former (usually local public) schools. Despite inevitable growing pains, most charters, the authors say, run well and have survived the most critical “birthing” years. The movement is growing, diversifying, and showing no signs of losing steam.

Finn and his colleagues admit that some charter schools have been poorly conceived or poorly managed, and that some have closed. The main reasons for closing have been fiscal mismanagement, which ranges from failure to balance the books to a principal absconding with funds. But the authors also report closings because of safety concerns, the filing of inflated attendance figures, power struggles, failure to meet goals, either of enrollment or innovative teaching, and high absenteeism. As they put it, “The most common reasons for school closings have been organizational chaos, management meltdown, and financial shenanigans.”

Finn and his coauthors also concede that the data on student achievement are thin and that other measures of quality are not always available. The dozens of books, articles, and governmental reports I’ve read on the topic confirm that it is too early to know whether, in the aggregate, charter schools improve student achievement compared to appropriate schools or populations used as controls. In view of his insistence elsewhere on the importance of standards, tests, and outcomes, and his frequently vitriolic denunciation of public schools and unionized teachers, Finn is noticeably tolerant when it comes to the judgments on charter schools. (I am reminded of Boston University’s John Silber, who announced with great fanfare that he and his colleagues would totally remake the schools of Chelsea, Massachusetts; a decade later, declarations of victory have been considerably muted, with the university’s authorities emphasizing the health and welfare of youngsters rather than their still lackluster classroom performances.)

Elsewhere, far more troubling questions have been raised about charter schools, particularly about the extent to which they are open to a diverse population. To be sure, many charter schools have been created in the inner city; many respond to the legitimate demands of poor citizens who rightly lament the deplorable physical and pedagogical conditions of their local schools. Yet charter schools select their students, and there are various ways they can control this selection. For example, one can hold a lottery but keep its time and place quiet. One can stipulate various parental requirements—such as attendance at school events—that will discourage parents with multiple jobs, single mothers, or those with limited access to transportation. One can create curriculums that have racial or ideological biases (of the left or the right).

In his searching study Inside Char-ter Schools, Bruce Fuller comments sharply that

charters usually invite just certain types of families to participate, be they classified by race, religious affiliation, or philosophical commitment to strict discipline or innovative pedagogy. Charter schools, almost by their special-mission definition, are rarely inclusive institutions.

Supporting Fuller’s criticism, disturbing evidence has accumulated that charter schools manage to avoid students with severe learning or emotional problems or find ways (subtle or not-so-subtle) of “counseling them out” of the schools.7 The result, of course, is a “creaming” of the more promising and ambitious children, even within the inner city, while the least desirable or least knowledgeable are left in the non-charter schools.

One argument for charter schools is that they will create new models for learning, with which public schools will have to compete and which they may also emulate. Certainly this has been a chief claim of the Edison Schools, by far the best known and most strongly favored of the for-profit efforts. Yet some observers deplore the lack of experimentation in these schools.8 While relieved of annoying bureaucratic red tape and free to select their own teachers, these schools have not been particularly inventive, nor have they inspired emulation on the part of other schools (except, perhaps, in the ways in which these schools advertise themselves). I don’t find this surprising. The schools are staffed largely by ordinary teachers, with varying degrees of help from parents. Nowadays, the most dazzling schools—which are often in prosperous suburbs or are created by well-to-do patrons—feature technological innovations that price them beyond the means of any ordinary municipality.

Naturally, one wonders what these schools are like inside, and various books under review, especially the ones by Finn et al. and Fuller, describe specimen schools. Alas, these descriptions, while individually evocative, do not provide a picture of typical schools, and for an unexpected reason. American charter schools are as varied as American colleges and universities; indeed it could even be said that they are as varied as Internet sites. In each case judgments must take account of the sources of dissatisfaction of particular citizens, the particular vision of the school, and the resources available.

For this article, I made brief visits to two much-discussed local charter schools in the Boston area. The Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts, is a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a large national network composed primarily of secondary schools, cofounded by the distinguished educator Theodore Sizer. (Sizer served, with his wife Nancy, as co-principal in 1998- 1999.) There are 360 students, seventh to twelfth grades, and forty-one faculty; classes average fifteen students. At Parker, located in an exurban, basically rural setting, the students, mostly white, take a demanding curriculum, more reminiscent of college than high school. I attended a class on the American Family, 1950-1990, which combined historical and literary sources and required weekly essays; in a drama class, I observed students analyzing the style of ten contemporary American writers. Teachers come largely from liberal arts colleges; most of the parents must drive students considerable distances to attend the school; there is constant debate among faculty, parents, and students about the fundamentals of educational philosophy. Few minorities are represented in the student body or faculty. Despite Theodore Sizer’s stated opposition to standardized examinations, and the favoring of “exhibitions” over tests in the school, Parker students were among the very best performers in recent state-mandated tests. Essentially the Parker School is like an independent school without tuition.

In sharp contrast, the Boston Renaissance Charter School is a “research and design” school of the much-discussed Edison School network of seventy-nine schools. It is located in downtown Boston and children are bused there from around the city. Despite the relative diversity of Boston’s urban population, the school population is almost entirely African-American and Hispanic; Asians are absent. The school already enrolls 1,200 students and will soon have 1,500, from kindergarten through eighth grade. The faculty is quite mixed in background. Given Edison’s claims about its innovativeness, I was surprised to discover relatively little emphasis on technology and a curriculum consisting largely of the “best practices” drawn from elsewhere, such as individualized tutoring of children who are not reading at grade level. Character education and “life skills” are deemed important; walls are filled with posters highlighting the discipline needed to succeed in school—I saw nothing remotely similar at Parker. I was impressed by the seriousness of the students and faculty and the pervading civility in the building. Still, in the annual state tests, the school performed in the bottom 10 percent of all schools. Renaissance is reminiscent of a big city school of forty years ago, when the authority of the central administration was more powerful and less questioned than it is today.

The difference between Renaissance and Parker is huge, reflecting the social and economic differences between the students at the two schools. Indeed, the chief similarities I found in the schools were in tone: students and faculty were accustomed to visitors yet self-conscious about the “specialness” of school; there was deep concern at both schools about the high turnover of teachers and administrators and about raising money to keep the schools going. (Renaissance has a $28 million debt on its ten-story building).

Which brings me to the two most worrisome aspects of charter schools. Many of them are started by people with unusual energy and appealing ideas. Such efforts are sometimes sustained for a time by the charisma of exceptional leaders, such as the famous New York and Boston principal Deborah Meier.9 However, pioneers usually move on. In the absence of a group of first-rate teachers, a hefty endowment, or perhaps most important a sustained tradition of excellence supported fiscally and ideologically, the schools will eventually have a hard time competing with other schools, public or chartered. Indeed, my file of articles on the opening of charter schools is now complemented by a growing file of schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere that have had to close for one or another reason. It’s not easy to build, finance, and run a school successfully. I also find it is difficult to conceive of a society in which there would be thousands of independent schools, each marching to its own tune. Any thought that so many institutions could be held accountable to reasonable standards is naive; and the potential for misleading advertising is appreciable.


The controversies surrounding charter schools are mild compared with those over the voucher movement. While the charter school movement can be seen as a gentle expansion of the democratic public vision of Alexis de Tocqueville, Horace Mann, or John Dewey, the voucher movement reflects the market-dominated vision of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. In the view of their harsher critics, these visionaries threaten to introduce social Darwinism into the hitherto protected enclave of educating the young. No longer does a parent simply search among the available publicly supported schools; rather, equipped with a sum of money or its equivalent, the parent is now a customer looking for the most attractive deal in town. In its modest forms, that deal is restricted to nonsectarian institutions, which may or may not be profit-making. In full-blown form, which appeals most vividly to the Friedmanites, one can use the money for any bona fide educational purpose and elicit services from any bona fide vendor or set of vendors (as determined by the body that issues the voucher).

The voucher movement is just beginning. Twenty-one states have considered some kind of voucher program, but most have voted them down so far and only two cities—Milwaukee and Cleveland—have programs of any size. A few well-to-do groups or individuals, most notably the businessmen Theodore Forstmann and John Walton, have also financed voucher schemes in New York, Washington, D.C., San Antonio, and Dayton, and there are experiments in Florida. Therefore, we have little information about the effectiveness of voucher programs in this country. While charter schools have support across the political spectrum, most backing for vouchers comes from conservative groups, who make much of unexpected supporters like Howard Fuller, an African-American educator who once worked for the community organizer Saul Alinsky and who served as superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools in the early 1990s. Vehement claims, both enthusiastic and hostile, have been made about the voucher system.

In the case of vouchers, the chief academic enthusiast has been Paul Peterson of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. With several col-leagues, Peterson has looked in some detail at the voucher experiment in Cleveland and he likes what he sees. In Cleveland, parents are given up to $2,500 to send their children to any school, including a religious one. (This is significantly less than the per pupil expenditure in the district but may be enough for a parochial school.) In 1996, 1,994 students were officially enrolled in fifty-five private schools in the Cleveland voucher program; more than three quarters of the students attended parochial schools. According to a number of studies, the parents are very pleased with the program and there are long waiting lists to get into a school that accepts vouchers. When test scores are examined, Peterson finds significant improvement, in comparison with a control group, in the mathematics and reading performance of the voucher students. Another study using different measures, carried out by Kim Metcalf, reports some improvements in language and science, but not in any other subjects. 10

Amid the welter of claims and counterclaims, it is heartening to encounter the careful study of the voucher movement by John Witte, Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Initially neutral (or mildly positive) on the subject of vouchers, Witte was given the task—and the authority—to evaluate the first five years of the voucher experiment in Milwaukee, and he does so in his recent book The Market Approach to Education: An Analysis of America’s First Voucher Program.

During the period studied by Witte (1990-1995), the Milwaukee program worked as follows: Parents whose income did not exceed a certain amount (175 percent of the poverty line) were invited by the city to apply to any independent school that was deemed eligible. More families applied than could be admitted to the available slots in the schools that chose to participate (typically, there were between 15 and 20 percent more applications than slots in the participating schools), though the total number of applicants never exceeded the total number of students (and vouchers) actually permitted by the law. Those who were chosen, typically by lot, received a voucher—essentially, a money order (worth about $2,500 in 1990, about $4,500 in 1995). They were free to use this money at any accredited educational institution in the Milwaukee area that chose to participate in the program. Initially, religious schools were excluded, but starting in 1995 sectarian institutions were permitted as well.

The number of students participating was never large; it ranged from 341 at the beginning of 1990 to 830 at the beginning of 1995. In practice, of the people who received vouchers, about 75 percent were African-American families, with a substantial group of Hispanics (15 to 20 percent) and a sprinkling of other minorities and whites. The schools they chose were largely former parochial schools. This is not surprising since these schools already existed; they had staff and a philosophy; they paid teachers little and were correspondingly inexpensive; and they had a tradition of caring about, and trying to help, less fortunate youngsters. The financial considerations are important because a voucher of less than $5,000 is not going to pay for the local equivalent of Phillips Andover or Phillips Exeter Academy; indeed, such private schools can cost $20,000 to $30,000 a year.

Witte’s study yields decidedly mixed results. On the one hand, echoing the findings of Peterson, Finn, and their colleagues, Witte finds that most participating parents are satisfied with the voucher program. (It is important not to exaggerate this result; one amazingly consistent finding in American social science research is that most consumers are satisfied with the local vendors, whether they are physicians or teachers; it is those “other places” that have problems.) Most of the schools are reasonably well run. However, of the eighteen schools that enrolled Milwaukee youngsters, four failed. The chief problems were financial (charges of theft, mismanagement of funds, and one bankruptcy) or political (conflicts among administrators, clashes between parents and staff). Witte writes that failures and success stories are “about evenly matched.” There is no evidence that the remaining public schools have been affected by the voucher experiment, but that is no doubt because the experiment is so small.

In looking at the Milwaukee patterns, Witte, as one might expect, finds that the parents with children in the voucher schools were more involved in their children’s schooling than many parents who for whatever reason decided not to apply; also, the voucher parents had been less satisfied with the public schools. Voucher parents therefore are obviously not drawn from a random sample of the Milwaukee population; they reflect the attitudes of the part of the city’s large African-American population that is most concerned about education.

Looking at Cleveland and at privately funded voucher programs such as those favored by Forstmann and Walton, Witte discerns a tendency, noted also by Bruce Fuller, for the schools to attract people of a similar background and ideology. He also notes that the voucher program was widely seen as an African-American initiative for African-American families. Rather than achieving the diversity that most educators favor, at least rhetorically, the advertising and selection system serves as a mechanism for bringing people with similar backgrounds together. Moreover, the schools are as selective as they can be; in his review of privately funded vouchers, Witte concludes, “the results were a fairly classic case of creaming off the best students and families.”

Witte disputes the claim that students in Milwaukee’s voucher programs outperformed those remaining in public schools. He asserts:

In terms of achievement tests I concluded, after repeated permutations of data and models, that there were no differences in achievement gains in either reading or math between Choice and [Milwaukee Public Schools] students…. Particularly in reading, there is no improvement whatever; indeed, one analysis suggests that reading scores may actually be lower in the voucher programs.

Contrary to the claims of the Peterson group, Witte, after discounting data which he believes were over-interpreted, again finds no difference in mathematics scores between students in the voucher program and those in the most relevant comparison group: a group of so-called Reject Controls who applied but lost out in the lottery or for some other reason (for example, the school could not handle a handicapped student who required special attention). On the important question of student achievement—where conservatives like Chester Finn and John Silber unceasingly direct their rhetorical fire—voucher programs proved no more effective than public school programs.

Still no one should be surprised if some studies show that voucherstudents do better than public school students, particularly in cities where many public schools are in bad shape, and voucher schools may offer smaller classes and the stimulation of a fresh start. A well-designed study whose results were released in August 2000 followed students in New York, Dayton, and Washington, D.C., who received vouchers worth about $2,000 from private donors. The vouchers could be used in private schools, which meant parochial schools in most cases.11 While the vouchers did not affect test performances of Caucasian, Hispanic, or other ethnic groups, African-American students improved significantly on both reading and math tests in comparison to an African-American group that was eligible to use vouchers but did not. The authors are uncer-tain about the reason for this result, though they suggest that the discipline in the parochial schools may have created an effective setting for enhanced learning.

Like other studies reviewed here, this one raises questions. Only about half of the students who received vouchers used them; one wonders on what grounds some students were admitted to schools and others were not. The authors praise the private schools, and yet it is equally plausible that students simply went from worse to better schools. Would the results have differed had the students transferred from New York City to Scarsdale or Greenwich public schools? Finally, it is important to ascertain whether the African-American students actually improved with reference to national norms or only in comparison to students who remained in their original schools.


In their respective ways, these educational experiments raise fundamental questions about education in a democratic society. Both proponents and opponents couch their positions in rhetoric that has comforting reverberations in American society. Proponents speak of the importance of choice and grass-roots initiatives, the benefits of competition, and the promotion of equity by assuring that every citizen has the same choices that are now available to the affluent and the dogged. Opponents speak just as readily of the importance of a common core culture and common democratic values in a “common school,” the need for fairness for everyone and not just those with superior knowledge or mobility, and the importance of institutions where citizens from different backgrounds can rub elbows with one another rather than being stratified along financial, religious, or ideological lines.

So far, it is premature to conclude that either side has a monopoly on virtue. Both charter schools and vouchers provide often much appreciated choices for families that lack equivalent chances for their children. On the other hand, it is not at all clear that a more diverse or better-educated society emerges. In the all-important question of student achievement, we remain dozens of studies and many years away from conclusive data. Except for purely demographic information (attendance, transfer, dropout rates), student performance on standard achievement tests is by far the readiest variable about which it is possible to gain information. Consider how difficult it would be to assess, using “control institutions,” the comparative performance of charter or voucher schools in encouraging creativity, critical thinking, peer relations, citizenship, service learning, or a sense of community.

One response, then, is to suggest that the experiments be allowed to flourish. We can then see what actually happens—the good and the bad. However, it might be prudent to ask whether large-scale experiments have already been carried out elsewhere and, if so, what they have to tell us. Fortunately, one such place exists. In 1998, Edward Fiske, a well-known education writer formerly with The New York Times, and his wife, Helen Ladd, Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, spent five months in New Zealand, a country which had carried out just such a large-scale experiment. Fiske and Ladd have published their findings in a monograph, When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale.

In 1989, New Zealand, a country of some 3.8 million inhabitants, with 2,700 schools, launched a dramatic experiment. After abolishing the national department of education (a goal that eluded Ronald Reagan), the country authorized a full-fledged choice program. As the authors put it,

New Zealand is a living example of what can happen, for better and for worse, when schools are given managerial autonomy, when an entire school system opts for parental choices, and when ideas of market competition are applied to the delivery of social services.

Fiske and Ladd tell a cautionary tale. Choice turns out to be a positive benefit for parents who are educated, knowledgeable, and able to make use of their power within the system. However, choice does not really exist for everyone. Those with low incomes simply cannot choose where to live, drive their children to distant schools, or find the money to cover the higher costs, fees, and perquisites that are expected at tonier schools. Far from becoming more egalitarian, the school system has become increasingly stratified, as families segregate themselves by ethnic group (80 percent of New Zealanders are of European descent) and by socioeconomic status. Moreover, those with options desert the less effective schools, thereby abandoning them to those with the fewest options. The schools “at the other end of the popularity spectrum” must deal with the students who are difficult to teach, have learning or behavioral problems, belong to poor or dysfunctional families, and do not have English as a first language.

While intimations of these features could have been sensed in the far smaller American samples, the authors also discern other troubling trends. New Zealand has been noted throughout the world for its educational innovations and for the generally high achievement of its schools. But Fiske found that within schools, and among them, there has been a decided decline in professional collegiality. Under the new regime, teachers and schools are less willing to share their “best ideas” about teaching, the treatment of different groups, and health issues, because they have, reasonably, come to view other professionals and institutions as competi-tors. Indeed, 30 percent of elementary principals reported that the reforms had negative impact on the relationship with other schools. Moreover, because no one can tolerate a situation where the less popular schools become steadily worse, and it is not possible simply to shut down those schools and magically create good ones, the state has had to intervene in the end anyway. School competitiveness leads to a desire to have larger schools (in order to attract more students and hence more tuition); but as has been amply documented in recent years, bigger schools are not necessarily better ones. Finally, bureaucratic ineptitude and financial rascality are not uncommon in New Zealand’s competing schools.

Fiske and Ladd conclude that the “quasi-voucher” experiment in New Zealand has been far from a success. While there are many satisfied individual customers, important goals of the broader society have been ignored or even undermined. Because of the numerous differences between New Zealand and American societies the authors prudently withhold direct judgment on the fledgling American experiment: yet the authors insist—and I agree with them—that the New Zealand experiment is relevant to our current national debate. They offer the intriguing suggestion that the charter schools in the United States might better achieve the stated goal of innovation and diversity if they remain marginal (like well-funded and well-researched laboratory schools affiliated with universities) rather than becoming the norm, as occurred too quickly in New Zealand.


The charter school and voucher movements in America have been well launched and will continue to grow. I expect that there will be many more experiments, and that, in the end, we will encounter a decidedly mixed picture, much like that found in New Zealand by Fiske and Ladd.

Still, we should step back to ask what should be done educationally in this country, but not in reaction to the latest broadside by a politician or initial public offering by a technologically minded educational company. I believe that this country is too diverse and too complex ever to be satisfied by a single curriculum, pedagogy, or assessment. Even within a state or city, one finds genuine and deep disagreements about the means and goals of education. Should there be mandatory testing? Of what sort? What is more important, broad knowledge of many topics or deep knowledge of a smaller number? How much importance should be attributed to the arts, creativity, technology, civility, and extracurricular activities? Such a list leaves out the most controversial issues, for example whether creationist explanations should be offered in science (or any other) class, whether there should be explicit instruction in ethics, morality, sexuality, finance, or the market economy. How, indeed, could one ever design a school, or a school system, that would satisfy Jesse Helms, Jesse Ventura, and Jesse Jackson, and their respective constituencies?

I see no need for a single top-down school regimen, and yet at the same time, I recoil from the notion of every school and district doing its own thing. Such a Baskin-Robbins approach to education is neither necessary nor desirable. In spheres ranging from long-distance phone service to international travel, we can make do with a small number of discrete choices. My own recommendation for American education, detailed in The Disciplined Mind,12 is that as a society we move toward a small number of distinct educational pathways, perhaps six to ten in number. An individual school or set of schools within a district would adopt a particular pathway; the number of schools that followed each pathway would reflect local demand. Pathways would differ chiefly in educational philosophy: for example, one pathway, reminiscent of the Parker School, might highlight “progressive approaches to education,” where students investigate topics in depth, and where raising good questions is deemed as important as coming up with the right answer. A contrasting approach, one that might be identified with the influential educator E.D. Hirsch, would instead emphasize “core knowledge,” the acquisition of a common set of facts and concepts that would allow Americans from all backgrounds to share a common linguistic and historical heritage.

As a minimum, students in each pathway would have to demonstrate basic competence in reading, writing, and mathematics, and such competence could be assessed by state-mandated tests. Once one commences to study the academic disciplines, however, I would expect that pathways would differ significantly. One could have a decent science curriculum that stresses broad textual knowledge of several sciences, as well as an equally effective curriculum that specializes in one or two sciences and features much laboratory work. One could have history curriculums that would use broadly based textbooks or intensive examination of original sources, or that combine both approaches.

Under the plan I envisage, families would choose one of these pathways at the time of entry to school and for the most part they would stick to that pathway, although they could of course change their minds. Such a system would be manageable; curriculums would be public as would the assessments of their adequacy; as the system of pathways became established, most individual families could have genuine choices wherever they lived, while the chaos of thousands of autonomous schools competing in a difficult-to-regulate marketplace would be avoided. I strongly prefer a system that is public and not-for-profit. Education is a public good, one that invests in young persons in the hope that they will become knowledgeable, productive, and civil adults, with a concern not only for themselves or even for their society but also for the welfare of the planet and for posterity. Such education is best removed from the marketplace, which is necessarily bent on producing monetary profit over a relatively brief period of time.

In view of the current failures of public education, I do not question the motives of most who push for char-ter schools or vouchers. However, in some cases, the motive of undermining American public education is clear and should be identified as such. In a letter introducing the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation, dedicated to promoting school choice, Milton Friedman writes, “About 90 percent of our kids now go to so-called public schools, which are really not public at all but simply private fiefs primarily of the administrators and the union forces.” The venture capitalist Theodore Forstmann, who finances the largest private voucher system, asserts that he wants to break the “government monopoly” in American education: “By the time this is over, I am going to give parents of this country a voice. And we will find out whether they want to be in charge of the education of their children or not.”13

Even those with more public-spirited motives may inadvertently be participating in the undermining of institutions which they ought to be strengthening. Bruce Fuller acutely observes,

Charter school founders—leading their human-scale institutions and, in the aggregate, the charge to decentralize government—may paradoxically erode the strength of public authority and the very agencies on which their livelihood depends. For if charter schools are to essentially serve the tribal agendas of well-off white parents, faithful home schoolers, la Raza devotees, even Mormons and Muslims, then why should society continue to support the public purposes that hold together pub-lic education?

And he further asserts, “When we no longer trust government to address the corrosive effects of family poverty or to find teachers who shape our children in more fulfilling ways, the unleashed pursuit of private and trivial interests will only grow more intense.”

It is worth bearing in mind that education extends far beyond the walls of school. Schools have continuing importance in our country, and, arguably, far more influence in other parts of the world; yet the amount of capital available to students and families—social, intellectual, and human—continues to be the best predictor of success in school and success in life. Tell me the ZIP code of a child and I will predict her chances of college completion and probable income; add the elements of family support (parental, grandparental, ethnic and religious values) and few degrees of freedom remain, at least in our country. Much of our current educational plight cannot be attributed to the quality of schools or schoolteachers per se but rather to the lack of the appropriate kinds of social capital,14 and to the often tawdry values promoted by the entertainment, television, and political worlds. And that is why many of us, against our better inclinations, end up taking our children out of the public schools and trying to create our own fortresses. It seems likely that we will go through paroxysms of excessive choice before we arrive at a saner system.

This Issue

October 19, 2000