Does School Choice "Work"?

These would seem to be dark days for the school-choice movement, as several early champions of choice have publicly expressed their disillusionment. A few years ago, the Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern--author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice--caused a stir when he backed away from his once-ardent support. Howard Fuller, an architect of Milwaukee's school-voucher plan and the godfather of the school-choice movement, has wryly observed, "I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn't been the deep, wholesale improvement in [Milwaukee Public Schools] that we would have thought." Earlier this year, historian Diane Ravitch made waves when she retracted her once staunch support for school choice in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "I just wish that choice proponents would stop promising that charters and vouchers will bring us closer to that date when 100 percent of all children reach proficiency," she opined in her blog. "If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric." Harvard professor and iconic school-voucher proponent Paul Peterson has characterized the voucher movement as "stalled," in part by the fact that many "new voucher schools were badly run, both fiscally and educationally," and in part because results in Milwaukee were not "as startlingly positive as advocates originally hoped." Likewise, Peterson argues, "the jury on charter schools is still out."

To many who hold out hope that choice can help fix what ails America's schools, these hedges and reversals have been startling. And yet, looking back, it is hard to see how they were not inevitable. For decades, school-choice advocates have seemed bent on producing this hour of disappointment.

The search for that panacea, and the insistence that it must be just around the corner, have been destructive distractions.

There has been, for instance, a tendency to vastly overpromise. In 1990, the same year that Milwaukee's tiny voucher program launched the school-choice debate, scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe argued in their seminal volume, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools: "Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. . . It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways." Chubb and Moe are gifted thinkers, and their book was a tour de force, but this may have been some of the worst advice that school reformers ever got.

The search for that panacea, and the insistence that it must be just around the corner, have been destructive distractions. They have led champions of market-oriented reforms--and so also allowed skeptics--to adopt a ludicrous standard for judging whether school choice "works." Since reformers have suggested that the mere presence of choice will bring about dramatic improvement in schools, the expectation has been that the simple fact of having an alternative--even inadequately funded vouchers, or charter schools hog-tied by regulation--should yield demonstrable gains in academic achievement. And so, for the past 20 years, the question of whether school choice "works" has been understood to mean simply whether a school-choice program boosted reading and math test scores in a given year.

The need to answer this question with an unequivocal "yes" has forced choice advocates into bizarre contortions and short-sighted thinking. The same can be said of opponents, whose insistence, in the face of all evidence, that school choice is harmful has led them to ignore its real achievements.

Particularly problematic is how this way of thinking has caused school-choice proponents to ignore crucial questions of market design and implementation--especially the extent to which reforms have, or have not, created a real market dynamic in education. The chief promise of choice, after all, was that it would displace ossified, monopolistic school bureaucracies or at least inject into them a degree of flexibility, competition, and quality control. The question education reformers should be asking, then, is not simply whether choice "works"--because choice is neither the sole end of nor a sufficient means for bringing about successful market-based reform.

The questions to focus on are when, how, and why deregulation and monopoly-busting improve the quality and cost effectiveness of goods and services--and whether they can do the same for K-12 schooling. What would a vibrant market in K-12 education look like? To what degree has it really been tried? What needs to change in order to bring about such a market, and how would we assess whether it is in fact improving the education received by children in America's schools?

Before answering these crucial questions, however, it is important to understand how reformers came to paint themselves into a corner. . . .

This full article is available from National Affairs.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: Bigstock/Pixart

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Frederick M.
Hess
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.


    Follow AEI Education Policy on Twitter


    Follow Frederick M. Hess on Twitter.

  • Email: rhess@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Sarah DuPre
    Phone: 202-862-7160
    Email: Sarah.DuPre@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The money in banking: Comparing salaries of bank and bank regulatory employees
image What Obama should say about China in Japan
image A key to college success: Involved dads
image China takes the fight to space
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.