Potemkin School Reforms

Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, has a piece on New Orleans education reform in the current issue of Time. In describing a system of increased public school choice and charter schools he writes that it is “a voucher system in all but name that blows up the monopoly.”

If by “voucher system,” Mr. Isaacson means a system in which:

  • there are no market-determined prices (schooling is paid for entirely by the state and spending does not vary based on quality, demand, or any other market factor)
  • there are substantial barriers to the entry of new schools (the need to for a state charter)
  • schools can be closed for other than market reasons (charters are temporary and revocable)
  • for profit enterprise is inhibited (non-profit charter boards can contract out to for-profit management firms, but do so solely at their discretion, inhibiting expansion)
  • devotional religious school options are foreclosed

then, yes, you could call the N.O. model a “voucher system.” But to do so is to blur the distinction between a weak public school choice reform with only modest prospects and genuine market reforms which could spark the kind of innovation and excellence we have seen in every other sector of the economy over the past century.

Blurring that distinction is toxic to the school choice movement. If readers of Mr. Isaacson’s article take him at his word, and, five or ten years hence, fail to see dramatic results N.O., what will they conclude? They will conclude, mistakenly, that market reforms were tried and failed. In essence, Isaacson has built a straw man and given it to school choice critics to attack at their leisure.

So let us not use the word “voucher” to describe a hobbled public school choice program that does not even vaguely resemble the sort of free educational marketplace Milton Friedman had in mind when he wrote “On the Role of Government in Education” more than fifty years ago.