Is School Choice Enough?

Sol Stern is frustrated with school choice, and he’s right to be. Far too few parents can take their children out of unsatisfactory public schools and send them to schools that work, and choice advocates have promised far too much from tiny, hamstrung programs. But as vexing as these troubles are, they signal neither that we should curb the school-choice fight nor that we should give government more power by demanding uniform standards and tests.

Stern’s choice-to-standards conversion came, apparently, after he heard education historian Diane Ravitch offer a “thought experiment” in a recent debate with choice advocates. Stern describes Ravitch’s scenario:

Say that one school system features market incentives and unlimited choices for parents and students, but no standard curriculum. Then posit another system, with no choice allowed, but in which the educational leadership enforces a rich curriculum and favors effective instructional approaches. In the market system, Ravitch predicted, “most schools will reflect the dominant ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training, so most schools will adopt programs of whole language and fuzzy math… . Most students under a pure choice regime will know very little about history or literature or science.” The system with the first-rate curriculum and effective pedagogy, Ravitch argued, would produce better education outcomes.

So a dictatorship featuring a “rich curriculum” and “effective educational approaches” beats school choice? Let’s test this argument against reality. First, do parents with choice really pick institutions dominated by fuzzy-headed progressives? Stern himself disproves this: “Starting in the 1980s, major empirical studies by sociologist James Coleman and other scholars showed that urban Catholic schools were better than public schools at educating the poor, despite spending far less per student. Among the reasons for this superiority: most Catholic educators still believed in a coherent, content-based curriculum, and they enforced order in the classroom.”

So Catholic schools — among the most abundant alternatives to public institutions — are bastions of rigor and traditional curricula. But aren’t many of them closing their doors? Yes, but not because parents don’t want what they’re offering. They’re struggling largely because they have to charge tuition, while the public schools that they compete with do not. Their problem is not too much choice; it’s too much government.

What about Ravitch’s conclusion that American education would be better off if a dictator imposed quality content and pedagogy? It’s a nice fantasy — if someone imposed perfection, things would be perfect — but reality tells a different story. We have, in fact, had centralized, top-down education for roughly a century, and it’s exactly what gave educational progressives their power. As Ravitch herself makes clear in her book Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, “progressive reformers created centralized school bureaucracies” in order to take power away from “lay” people, and though local control slowed the onslaught, even resistant communities eventually fell in line.

[P]arents often have little power to take their kids out of poor schools and put them into better ones.”

We can see the consequences of centralization in progressives’ domination of education schools — the very domination that Ravitch and Stern believe renders universal choice worthless. Stern argues that teacher training is “an almost perfect system of choice” because prospective teachers can choose among numerous ed schools. But the fact remains that to teach in a public school — the ultimate goal for most education students — one must get certified by government. And as Fordham Foundation president Chester Finn has explained, that requires demonstrating mastery of progressive ideas and pedagogy.

Government, again, is the problem. But how does parental choice deliver rigorous standards and accountability, while centralized control of American education does not? The answer is political reality. Parents typically want what’s best for their children, and as the Catholic schools show, for many that’s a challenging, rigorous education. But parents often have little power to take their kids out of poor schools and put them into better ones. Their tax dollars automatically go to public schools, and if they want an alternative, they have to pay on top of that. Moreover, public school teachers and administrators often exert overwhelming political power in keeping accountability out of the schools and their preferred curricula in. That’s why Massachusetts — which Stern points to as proof that standards-based reform works — is nearly alone in having strong standards, and why the No Child Left Behind Act has done more harm than good.

Of course, as noted earlier, the battle for school choice has hardly been easy, and we’re a long way from the widespread freedom of choice that we really need. But progress has been made: since 1990, thousands of charter schools have been created, voucher programs have been implemented in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, and tax-credit programs have been instituted in Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, and elsewhere.

And so we are presented with a choice of our own: we can either give more power to a monopoly that has constantly failed our children, or we can fight to give parents a much greater range of educational options. Unfortunately, Sol Stern has made his decision, and it’s not the right one.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.