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A 'Reform Plan of Disillusionment'

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Privatization and Educational Choice
By Myron Lieberman

St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10010; 386 pp., $35 cloth, $12.95 paper.

If Myron Lieberman has his way, we may no longer have public education. States will not operate schools, and perhaps they will not help support them either.

Privatization and Educational Choice adds another volume to Mr. Lieberman's lengthening argument against public schools and educators. His has been a curious sojourn: Once a vigorous champion of strengthening and professionalizing the position of teachers, Mr. Lieberman now sees them as major villains on the educational scene.

In 1956, his book Education as a Profession urged unionization and collective bargaining (a position he later repudiated in the essay "Eggs I Have Laid"). By 1960, in The Future of Public Education, he was calling for extensive changes in the formal power structure of education, but he expected teachers to lead the struggle for reform.

By 1986, however, although the problem was still control, the solution had changed: Mr. Lieberman was looking, as the title of his book published in that year indicated, "beyond public education" and to vouchers and tuition tax credits as the way to go. Now, in his new book, he is exploring multiple possibilities for privatization.

Though we've been through a decade of teacher-bashing, few critics have topped Mr. Lieberman in their contempt for educators. Public-school teachers, he says, "exploit pupils for their own welfare." They "support student interests when it is in the teachers' interests to do so, but not otherwise."

"Reforms that propose to 'empower teachers' or 'replace hierarchical structures with peer-group control,"' he also writes, "are ludicrous intellectually. ... Such proposals are tantamount to prescribing the h.i.v. virus to cure aids."

Privatization and Educational Choice is based on an economic interpretation of the behavior of public employees. "Public choice" theory--which has nothing to do with family choice among public schools--holds, as Mr. Lieberman summarizes, "that the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats can be explained by the same principles that govern behavior in private economic affairs. ... [P]ersons generally act so as to enhance their self-interest."

The plausibility of this perspective, combined with negative experiences with schools, has led a number of scholars to bring public-choice theory to bear on public education. Mr. Lieberman's book shows the risks of this application. It leads us to be constantly on guard against ulterior motives and sends a tacit warning that we should probably dismiss as pretense any appearance of commitment or dedication or altruism.

Only the most gullible of us lack evidence that would support such an outlook, but perhaps only the most cynical believe that human beings never act otherwise. A theory is a lens through which to view events and conditions. We learn early that it may be foolish to select rose-colored lenses. But it may be equally ill-advised to choose charcoal gray.

His somber picture of public schools and their potential prompts Mr. Lieberman's search for ways to privatize them. He extends his previous arguments for vouchers, but he looks also at contracting arrangements that would enable boards to purchase teaching services from private organizations rather than hire teachers directly.

Another possibility he explores is "load shedding"--severing all connections between education and the public interest. Under this proposal, government would no longer take any formal interest in education--not by operating schools, nor by funding them, nor by subsidizing individuals to attend them.

In Mr. Lieberman's view, the loss would not be serious, since tax-supported schooling in many cases "retards rather than fosters the skills, attitudes, and habits required for civic, social, and economic competence"--and load shedding would release "the hordes of students who should be working."

Mr. Lieberman's work is always carefully researched and reasoned. But his scholarship in this book bears some eccentricities. First, he avoids most of the usual sources in the works he cites. Though occasional long lists in his footnotes suggest he has identified them, the major entries in the more familiar literature on vouchers and other forms of choice are not what he looks to.

A second characteristic of this and other works by Mr. Lieberman is that one comes away with a feeling of having been coerced and manipulated. This response results from the author's particular combination of carefully supported assertions, unsupported stipulations, and omissions.

For instance, while he addresses choice within public schools, he gives the topic fairly short shrift--eight pages. He clearly thinks it won't work, but he ignores all the evidence from places where it is working. And he insists on construing public-school choice as a vain effort to mimic a free market. Actually, few who are operating such schools see them in these terms, and the evidence offers stronger support for rather different readings of why choice programs are launched and how they operate.

Mr. Lieberman displays unflagging faith in the power of the market and in the profit motive. "Education for profit," he tells us, "may be our best hope for improvement." He favors for-profit over nonprofit private schools, and he trusts the market over the government as a guardian of consumer interests. His book is a good illustration of how that old abstraction "economic man" might be expected to tackle the challenge of putting together an educational system.

But none of this is to deny the severity of the problems that trouble Mr. Lieberman. His objections to government by interest groups, for example, are shared by many observers who do not build their case on public-choice theory.

And his concern about how serand their suppliers can be held responsible to the public is certainly a major question for our time. For instance, are we better off leaving the regulation of airlines and their operations to the economic sector or relying on governmental control? Until the last decade or so, a large majority would quickly have chosen government. But we are daily reminded of the travesties and absurdities such a choice can yield.

Have we reached the end of the line? Is it indeed the case, as Mr. Lieberman and some other loud voices today are proclaiming, that public-sector accountability measures simply will not and cannot secure the public interest?

Mr. Lieberman's response is to look to the market. I can't see that as very promising. After all, even setting aside the augmented risks of greed and exploitation, there is no assurance that today's economy works much more effectively than today's government. It would hardly be a matter of moving, as he seems to believe, from a sector in bad repair to one that's working splendidly. I hope he's not setting himself up for yet another letdown.

Perhaps Privatization and Educational Choice is first and foremost a book about disappointment. Myron Lieberman shows us our dark side, elaborating the diagnosis we most fear on our bleakest days. His work presents the vision of the idealist who gave up--the reformer embittered by frustration with those who blocked his dream.

This book details the reform plan of disillusionment. It offers a strategy that can appeal only when one is convinced that to undertake anything less--as school reformers continue to do--will prove "hopelessly futilitarian."

Mary Anne Raywid, visiting professor of education at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, has written extensively on school reform and public-school choice.

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