Book Will Ignite Yearlong Debate About Choice, Educators Predict

By Lynn Olson — June 06, 1990 5 min read
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A new book to be released this week by the Brookings Institution will likely provoke a yearlong debate about choice and the governance of public schools, educators and political scientists who have seen copies of the manuscript predict.

The authors of the book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, argue that public schools should be governed more like private ones, which were found to be less bureaucratic and more effective at promoting student achievement.

To do so, the authors advocate that states create a new system based on choice in which private schools would be allowed to compete for students.

Reviewers last week described the book--by John E. Chubb, a senior fellow in governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, and Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University--as a “powerful,” “original,” and “methodologically sophisticated” study about the effects of politics on how children learn.

“In this book, I find for the first time clear, empirical evidence that a choice mechanism works better than a public-school arrangement,’' said Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University.

Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, called the book “dynamite ... a real tour de force.”

“A number of us, for a very long time, have been making a set of arguments on moral, philosophical, and political grounds for why choice and diversity are important,” he said. “This gives us overwhelming empirical verification for what we thought was true.”

But that view was not shared by everyone.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the book’s analysis of the bureaucratic constraints facing public education “devastating.”

And he predicted it would “start a national debate on the question of modifying our school governance procedures.”

But he termed the book’s solution “very flawed.” What the authors propose is “essentially a type of voucher plan,” he said. “And I think that has substantial weaknesses, mostly because--as we see now with savings-and-loan associations--when you get substantial deregulation there are unanticipated consequences.”

In particular, Mr. Shanker questioned whether parents would be motivated to choose schools that provide a superior education--as the authors presume--or ones that simply appeal to them for other reasons. He also cautioned that it would be difficult to create an information system that would enable people to make informed choices among schools.

Mr. Shanker suggested that choice is not the only mechanism for introducing much-needed incentives into the public-school system.

“You can have a range of awards and punishments based on educational outcomes” that would be more likely to focus innovations on improved student learning, he asserted.

Sy Fliegel, the Gilder education fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City, predicted that educators would be angry with the book’s insistence that choice will work where other reforms have failed.

“They come out flatly for choice as a panacea,” Mr. Fliegel, a former superintendent of the East Harlem schools, said. “All the rest of us never said it’s a panacea. We’ve always said there are no panaceas.”

But in an interview last week, Mr. Chubb maintained that choice is “a fundamentally different reform from all of the others.”

“It fundamentally changes the system of public education, changes the incentives for everybody, and makes possible the things that reformers would like to see happen,” he said.

“No, choice is not a panacea in the sense that it’s going to solve all the problems,” he admitted. “But it provides a framework in which those problems are much more likely to be solved than they would be otherwise.”

Even fans of choice, however, took exception to some of the specifics of Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe’s proposal. In particular, they questioned the wisdom of creating a choice system that would include both public and private schools.

Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis, agreed that, in order to promote radical changes in education, it would be necessary to allow “other people, other public organizations, to start and run public schools.”

But, he said, “I have stayed on the track of trying to generate these kinds of dynamics within the context of public education.”

Mr. Fliegel added: “I’m a pragmatist. We’re not going to get choice in public education if people really think it’s a front for vouchers and tuition-tax credits.”

Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, also condemned the book’s suggestion that schools be allowed to choose students based on whatever criteria they think relevant, including a youngster’s previous achievement or behavior.

And Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, questioned whether a complacent citizenry would really take advantage of a system of choice to move their children from one school to another.

“Why will giving people choice cause them to change if they think that the status quo is serving them well enough?” he asked. If too few people took advantage of choice options, he noted, “a lot of the hoped-for effects would be muted.”

That problem, he said, is endemic to all choice proposals--not just to Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe’s efforts. The solution, he added, is to shake Americans out of their complacency.

Others praised the book for highlighting what Kenneth A. Shepsle, a professor of government at Harvard University, referred to as the “negative consequences from thorough-going democracy” and for suggesting what could be done to change that.

Reactions were mixed, however, about whether the book would generate more than just talk.

“The political support for the public school system as it exists today is so strong that I doubt this is going to change the political environment very much,” Mr. Peterson said.

But Mr. Finn said his sense of “what’s politically feasible has changed.”

At least six states have adopted statewide public-school choice plans, he noted. And in March, the Wisconsin legislature approved a bill that would give about 1,000 public-school students in Milwaukee the option of attending nonsectarian private schools at state expense.

“There’s nothing like the real to prove the possible,” Mr. Finn said. “I think things are thinkable that were not thinkable a year ago.’'

Agreed Mr. Doyle: “I really have a feeling that the 90’s are going to be a decade of enormous ferment, experimentation, and openness. And I think a book like this can really propel that along very, very rapidly.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 1990 edition of Education Week as Book Will Ignite Yearlong Debate About Choice, Educators Predict

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