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Is School Choice Enough? By: Sol Stern
City Journal | Wednesday, January 30, 2008


In City Journal’s Winter 2008 issue, contributing editor Sol Stern wrote a piece, School Choice Isn’t Enough, that ignited a firestorm of debate within the school-reform movement. Here, some of the nation’s top education scholars discuss the story, and Stern responds.

Jay P. Greene

For years, an uneasy truce has existed between education reformers who believe that the most important reform is expanding choice and competition and those who point instead to the adoption of a particular curriculum and pedagogy. Reinforcing the truce is the belief (which I continue to hold) that these two reform strategies are complementary. Choice and competition improve the odds that we will adopt and retain effective instructional practices, and those effective practices are the mechanism by which choice and competition bear fruit.

Sol Stern has broken this truce in the pages of City Journal, declaring his allegiance to “instructionist” reforms (in curriculum and pedagogy) over “incentivist” ones (choice and competition). Changing incentives through choice is neither necessary nor sufficient for widespread improvement of public schools, Stern argues, even if it may provide justice to individual students trapped in the public system. Though Stern is certainly not the first or only reformer to have adopted this view—he joins Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch, among others—he differs from Ravitch and Hirsch in that they never had much enthusiasm for choice and competition. Stern’s denunciation is sharper because he once believed in the power of competition to reform public schools; “facts on the ground,” he tells us, have changed his mind.

But while choice is not the “panacea” claimed by scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe in a regrettable moment of rhetorical excess, it has produced significant improvement in public schools. And it has done so despite the very limited nature of incentive reforms adopted to date. Nothing in Stern’s argument undermines the belief that incentive and instructional reforms are complementary. Stern’s best chance of getting and, what’s more important, keeping the instructional reforms that he desires is through incentive reforms. I would urge Stern and his fellow dissidents to restore the truce, because together, I think, we have the best chance of reforming public education.

Stern’s argument consists of five points. First, he contends that “taxpayer-funded voucher programs for poor children . . . have hit a wall.” Following Supreme Court approval of voucher programs in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Stern suggests, we expected a flood of new voucher programs, but we have added only a Washington, D.C. program to the existing ones in Milwaukee and Cleveland. This lack of political success, he argues, suggests that incentive reforms (or at least vouchers) have become a dead end and that we should move on to something else.

But looking only at vouchers for poor children doesn’t prove Stern’s point. If we look more broadly, we find a large and growing choice movement. According to the Friedman Foundation, there are 21 K–12 voucher or tax-credit programs in 13 states sending students to private schools at public expense. Ten of these programs were enacted after Zelman. To say that vouchers have run into a political roadblock is to say, oddly, that vouchers serving disabled students, vouchers serving students at chronically failing schools, and tax-credit-funded scholarships don’t really count as vouchers. Sure, there have been defeats and reversals, but on the whole, taxpayer-supported private school choice has expanded significantly in the last five years.

Moreover, if we consider other incentive reforms such as charter schools, 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter laws on the books; two decades ago, none did. In total, charter schools educate about 1.1 million students, roughly as many as in New York City public schools. And if we expand the set of incentive reforms to include merit-pay programs, we see that Denver, Little Rock, Nashville, New York City, parts of Texas, and the entire state of Florida are implementing such programs. Stern’s announcement of the political death of vouchers in particular, or of incentive reforms in general, is a bit premature.

Of course, even with this growth in incentive reforms, the competitive pressure that they put on traditional public school systems is quite limited. In the 13 states with vouchers or tax credits for attending private schools, the dollar value of the vouchers or scholarships is usually a fraction of what public schools receive. Also, large increases in public school expenditures have at least partly offset the financial losses that are due to these programs, insulating the public schools against competitive pressure. Incentive reforms are expanding, but we haven’t seen anything close to their full potential yet.

Stern’s second argument is that even if vouchers were to expand, students would have nowhere to go because Catholic schools are closing in many big cities. He cites Detroit and D.C. as examples. But the reason that Detroit’s Catholic schools are under pressure is the rapid expansion of charter school options—and in Washington, Catholic schools are actually converting (so to speak) into charter schools because the financial and regulatory arrangements for charters are more attractive than for the city’s voucher program. Both circumstances, then, are actually signs that incentive reforms are thriving.

In other places, where voucher programs have been more generously funded and regulated, Catholic and other private schools are flourishing. For example, in Florida, the McKay program for students with disabilities offers a voucher worth the full cost of educating a student in public school. Under those generous terms, McKay has grown to be the second-largest voucher program in the country, with about 17,000 students, and new private schools have opened to accept McKay students. We have no reason to worry that students in well-funded voucher programs will lack private options to choose from.

Third, Stern claims that “the evidence is pretty meager that competition from vouchers is making public schools better.” This cuts to the heart of the matter: do competitive pressures from vouchers or other incentive reforms improve the performance of traditional public school systems? To answer that question, Stern considers whether Milwaukee and New York City, places where he suggests that different incentive reforms have been adopted, show positive results.

Since Stern’s entire case hinges on this claim, it is surprising that he musters such weak evidence and neglects a considerable body of rigorous research. The crudest and least persuasive analysis of whether competition improves public school performance is simply to assess the overall performance of places where competition has been expanded, neglecting to control for other factors that influence school performance. After all, it’s always possible that things would be even worse if not for competition.

For Milwaukee, Stern references his only rigorous study, by Caroline Hoxby, and acknowledges that “Milwaukee public schools’ test scores also improved—and did so most dramatically in those schools under the greatest threat of losing students to vouchers.” But then, Stern claims, those gains “fizzled.” The only evidence that he presents on this central point is that, even after 15 years of school choice, “Milwaukee’s public schools still suffer from low achievement and miserable graduation rates, with test scores flattening in recent years.” But of course this neglects the question of whether things would have been worse if not for expanded competition.

A large body of research exists on this issue. Rajashri Chakrabarti, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, extended Hoxby’s initial analysis. Rather than finding that gains had fizzled, as Stern claims, Chakrabarti concludes: “Using a difference-in-differences analysis in trends and Wisconsin data from 1987 through 2002, the paper shows that these shifts led to a much larger improvement in the second phase compared to the first phase. This result is robust to alternative samples and specifications, and survives several sensitivity checks.” That is, the benefits of competition on Milwaukee public school performance didn’t fizzle: they increased after 1998, when the program expanded.

Milwaukee is not an isolated instance of incentive reforms’ producing significant improvement. In Florida, where wide-ranging incentive reforms have been in place for several years, there have been four rigorous analyses of the effects of competitive pressure on the public school system. All four, from groups as disparate as the Manhattan Institute and the Urban Institute, agree that public schools made exceptional improvements in response to competitive pressure. (Read them here, here, here, and here.) Oddly, Stern makes no mention of Florida’s experience. He does not perform the crude analysis, which would show that overall Florida student achievement has been increasing since incentive reforms were under way, nor does he refer to any of the four rigorous analyses. If Stern means to conclude that competition has yielded “disappointing results,” one would think he’d have to address this evidence.

Rather than discuss Florida, Stern chooses to highlight New York City to support his argument. This is especially curious because New York has only recently pursued incentive reforms (such as merit pay for principals and teachers), has no voucher program, and has only a modest-sized charter effort. The merit-pay programs haven’t even been implemented yet, let alone subjected to rigorous evaluation. Stern’s comparison of NAEP scores between 2003 and 2007 can’t possibly speak to the effects of programs not yet in effect. Stern somehow knows the verdict not only before the jury has heard the evidence, but even before the crime has been committed.

In addition to evidence about the competitive effects of voucher programs, studies done in Arizona, Michigan, and Texas show that competition from charter schools improves the academic performance of nearby traditional public schools. A fairly large body of research also exists on the effects of public school districts’ competing with each other. Clive Belfield and Henry Levin at Teachers College, no friends of school choice, conducted a systematic review of over 200 analyses in that literature, concluding: “The above evidence shows reasonably consistent evidence of a link between competition (choice) and education quality. Increased competition and higher educational quality are positively correlated.”

Paul Peterson’s comment in Stern’s article—“It’s less clear that the presence of choice in a community motivates public schools to improve”—is relative to the evidence that we have on the effects of choice on those who participate in those programs. On the latter issue, we have ten analyses of random-assignment experiments (the gold standard of research design), nine of which show significant benefits for at least some subgroups of students who get to choose private schools. Understood in context, Peterson is not denouncing the quality of evidence showing the benefits of competition for public schools. He’s simply emphasizing the remarkably high-quality evidence available on participant effects.

Given multiple studies showing positive competitive effects from voucher programs in Milwaukee, several showing the same in Florida, several positive results from studies of charter competition, and more than 200 analyses of competition among public schools, Stern is simply mistaken to assert that incentive reforms fail to produce improvements by public schools—especially when he fails to discuss all but one of those studies.

Fourth, Stern thinks that the incentivist side is crippled by Diane Ravitch’s “unchallenged” observation that “the dominant ideas of the schools of education” will make even schools under choice systems adopt “whole language and fuzzy math,” as well as other unproductive instructional approaches. Ravitch’s argument may have gone unchallenged because it’s not a very cogent one. The perpetuation of ineffective instructional approaches by schools of education would appear to be a greater barrier to instructional reform than to incentive reform. Most people who select states’ and districts’ instructional approaches come from these ed schools; by what mechanism do Stern and Ravitch hope that they will be induced to select positive instructional reforms, instead of the “claptrap” that they acquired in their training and that most of their colleagues share? If they faced competitive pressure exposing them to the consequences of their decisions, one would think (and experience has shown) that they would be likelier to choose effective instructional approaches over foolish ones. In the absence of competitive pressure, it’s not clear what would push education leaders to adopt effective curriculum and pedagogy, no matter how much Ravitch and Stern may want them to.

The “uniformly awful” schools of education provide Stern with further proof that competition fails to yield results. Students can choose any ed school and those ed schools must compete for students, so why hasn’t that competition yielded better ed schools? The answer, of course, is that most of these ed schools’ graduates will be employed by monopolistic public schools that suffer few if any consequences if their hires are trained badly. If the employers are indifferent or hostile to effective instructional approaches, then the students seeking jobs with them will also tend to be indifferent or hostile to those approaches, and, in turn, the ed schools that those students choose will be indifferent or hostile. (Similarly, competition among business schools wouldn’t motivate them to teach effective business practices if the businesses that hired their graduates faced little or no competition.) To put it another way, competition among ed schools is highly effective—but it’s effective at producing ed schools well-suited to the preferences of our monopolistic public school system.

Fifth, Stern invokes the Massachusetts Miracle as support for an emphasis on instructional reform. The state’s overall results after it adopted instructional reforms are certainly very encouraging. But Massachusetts should also serve as a cautionary tale for those who think that they can rely solely or primarily on instructional reform. A peculiar alignment of the stars managed to make John Silber chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education, David Driscoll commissioner of education, Sandra Stotsky senior associate commissioner, Robert Costrell the governor’s education advisor, and Abigail Thernstrom a member of the Board—but how often, and for how long, will we have such a team to implement and preserve instructional reforms? I’m hard-pressed to think of any other major school systems that have been similarly capable of centrally dictating effective instructional reforms. Counting on replicating Massachusetts in other states and districts is a little like counting on a solar eclipse so that you don’t have to wear sunblock. You’re likely to get burned.

And now that all of these key players in Massachusetts have departed the scene (Costrell and Stotsky are now my colleagues in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas), there is a great likelihood that their accomplishments will steadily be dismantled by the new governor, Deval Patrick. In the absence of competitive pressure, effective instructional reforms appear to be both rare and fleeting. Under the pressure of competition, on the other hand, I can think of many schools and school networks that have individually adopted effective instructional practices. In addition to the Catholic schools that Stern praises, I would add competitors like KIPP Academies, Green Dot Schools, Aspire Schools, K12, and many others. Incentive reforms help produce instructional reform.

Stern is unrealistic about the mechanism by which effective instructional approaches are adopted and sustained. One cannot “posit another system, with no choice allowed, but in which the educational leadership enforces a rich curriculum and favors effective instructional approaches,” as Ravitch proposed in the thought experiment that Stern cites. If educational leaders and practitioners are made to experience the consequences of the curriculum and instructional approaches that they select, the odds are better that they will decide wisely. Of course, even under competition, education leaders and practitioners will sometimes make the wrong decisions, just as businesspeople sometimes make the wrong business decisions. A system of competition works by allowing people to make choices, including sometimes the wrong ones; by imposing consequences, the competitive system makes it more likely that they will make better choices over time.

Sol Stern, Diane Ravitch, and the new breed of “instructionists” have lost patience with the pitfall of choice—that people sometimes make the wrong decisions. They are confident that they know what effective practices are and would rather just tell everybody to do those “right” things. But we should all be open to the possibility that we don’t precisely know the right thing to do. Perhaps even better approaches could be developed in the future. Or perhaps what is right in some circumstances is wrong in others. Closing the door to the learning that comes from competition fails to anticipate these possibilities.

In general, education reform is a very slow process, with regular setbacks and disappointments. It’s a bit like the battle against cancer. Cancer may still account for almost one-quarter of all deaths. After decades of effort, there is still no universal cure, and occasionally what were thought to be promising therapies prove to be ineffective. But to conclude that cancer treatment has “hit a wall” and that we ought to try a “Plan B” would be to miss entirely the gradual but significant progress that has been made.

The same is true for incentive reforms in education. Milwaukee and other floundering school systems are not yet cured. Sometimes public school systems facing competitive pressure adopt ineffective educational strategies. Sometimes incentive reforms are defeated at the polls or overturned by courts. To dwell on these points, as Stern does, and then conclude that incentive reforms are a failure is to ignore all of the evidence of benefits that these reforms have brought.

If we didn’t have a host of studies supporting the effectiveness of competition in education, or if future studies consistently failed to find those benefits, I’d agree with Stern that we should move on to more promising ideas. But those aren’t the “facts on the ground.” Let’s keep pushing for the adoption of incentive reforms and carefully study their effects. And let’s continue to recommend the adoption of effective instructional approaches. This combined approach remains the most promising avenue for improving the education of our nation’s children.

Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is also the endowed head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Thomas W. Carroll

Sol Stern rightly asserts that the school-choice movement needs a Plan B. But if his Plan B entails a singular focus on instructional reform, we’re all in trouble. Several of Stern’s discoveries are not momentous. First, he has determined that “markets in education may not be a panacea.” Granted, John Chubb and Terry Moe argued in 1990 that “choice is a panacea,” but few others in the field have ever taken that position. Has any reform in the history of social science, on its own, proven to be a “panacea”? Of all the arguments against school choice, this is the weakest.

Second, Stern concludes that taxpayer-funded voucher programs for poor children “have hit a wall.” While it’s indisputably true that the power of teachers’ unions has stopped the spread of this crucial reform, at least for now, Stern misinterprets some key events. For example, he writes: “If vouchers can’t pass voter scrutiny in conservative Utah, though, how probable is it that they will do so anywhere else?” But support for vouchers is most intense in urban areas, especially among African-American and Latino parents, not in predominantly white areas, where schools aren’t in crisis. And Stern writes: “Voucher prospects have also dimmed because of the Catholic schools’ deepening financial crisis.” He has it exactly backward. Politicians’ refusal to make per-pupil spending on students fully portable has contributed to the Catholic school crisis. A fully funded voucher plan—which Washington, D.C.’s, for example, certainly is not—would dramatically revive Catholic schools.

Third, Stern worries that “the evidence is pretty meager that competition from vouchers is making public schools better.” But that suggests not the weakness of choice schools but the durability and thick-headedness of public-school systems. (Maybe his article should have been titled “District Schools Aren’t Enough,” rather than “School Choice Isn’t Enough.”) The answer isn’t to give up on choice, but rather to start dismantling the barriers to change within the district school systems—first and foremost the standard union contract, which Stern has written about extensively elsewhere. Stern also accepts as a basic premise that traditional district schools will always be, and perhaps should always be, the dominant provider of educational services. Why?

After amassing his presumed evidence, Stern asks: “Does the school choice movement have a realistic Plan B for the millions of urban students who will remain stuck in terrible public schools?” His vote is for a one-dimensional focus on instructional improvement—trading one panacea for another.

My problem with how Stern phrases his question is twofold: first, he assumes that all is well within choice schools; second, he assumes that the threshold issue is what goes on in traditional district schools. In reality, both the charter- and district-school sectors face the same challenge, just in different degrees: how to improve student achievement, especially for minority students and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Many choice schools are doing a better job of this than district schools, but others aren’t. Those charter schools that are performing better typically post gains only marginally ahead of the district schools’, and true success stories are rare in both sectors.

The few schools to have scaled up successfully around the country have not yet hit sufficient market share within a single school district. A few good schools here or there hardly constitute a serious challenge to the status quo. An effort to attain quality and scale in a single district would be significant, however, and two notable efforts, both relatively new, are under way. In Albany, the Brighter Choice Foundation, which I chair, is replicating a half-dozen or so successful school models, driving charter-school market share to 20 percent this year and expecting to hit one-third market share in just two more years. In Houston, KIPP and YES Prep are jointly replicating their own models in an effort to attain 20 percent market share in a much larger urban district.

The success stories suggest that the key isn’t simply market pressure or better instructional approaches and materials—the false choice that Stern presents. The art of creating and running successful schools is the ability to do several things right, not just one. The five key dimensions of successful reform, I would argue, are choice (granting parents, teachers, and school leaders the choice to be part of a school community); design (school leader autonomy, longer school day and school year, strict discipline, extensive use of data); sound instruction (phonics-based reading, traditional math); staff quality (recruitment, training, and motivation); and adaptability (a willingness to change any aspect of the school that obstructs achievement).

Any choice school or district school could be structured to reflect these five key dimensions. The focus should be on exploring what prevents choice schools and district schools from organizing themselves to ensure success. So yes, Stern is right that choice is not enough. But Stern’s singular alternative of instructional tinkering isn’t enough either.

Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and chairman of the Brighter Choice Foundation.

Andrew J. Coulson

Everyone knows the story. It’s Act 5, Scene 3. Romeo returns to Verona to find Juliet’s apparently lifeless body. In despair, he kills himself. Then Juliet wakes up . . . oops.

I recalled the play’s tragic finale as I read Sol Stern’s City Journal essay. He’s leaning over what he believes is the corpse of market education. . . . He’s taking out his vial of poison. . . . “Sol, don’t do it!” I yell helplessly at the screen. “Market education isn’t dead!” And then it’s over.

Assessing recent developments in American schooling, Stern concludes that “markets in education may not be a panacea—and . . . we should reexamine the direction of school reform.” But Stern’s conclusion does not, and indeed cannot, follow from his premises, because there isn’t a single place in the United States where education has operated as a free market for the past 150 years.

Stern’s mistake is to confuse the very unmarketlike “school choice” programs that exist today for real education markets. They’re nothing of the sort. Consider some of the essential characteristics of free markets: prices determined by supply and demand, private ownership of businesses, low or no barriers to the creation of new businesses, few or no barriers to workers’ entering the profession, unfettered consumer choice, minimal regulation, the opportunity for owners and investors to profit from their efforts, and payment by consumers rather than a third party. For true market forces to arise, these characteristics must exist on a large scale, with hundreds of thousands—or millions—of potential customers. Without such scale, the prospective return on investment is too small to raise enough capital for meaningful research and development, to generate the specialization and division of labor that afford consumers real choices, or to attract enough competitors to improve quality or lower prices significantly. Where education is concerned, these free-market ingredients are hobbled or absent altogether everywhere in the United States, regardless of the presence or absence of tiny “school choice” programs.

Unlike Romeo, Stern will happily survive his misjudgment. Unhappily, he is far from alone in erroneously conflating “school choice” with market education, and the widespread confusion on this point can—and unless corrected, will—kill the prospects for real market-based education reform in America. So let’s look at one example that Stern offers as an illustration of how existing choice programs fall far short of free markets.

Stern laments that while the Milwaukee voucher program has given hope and a better education to thousands of low-income children, it has not dramatically transformed the city’s public schools. There are two reasons why this observation is not an indictment of education markets. First, as noted above, the Milwaukee voucher program has never constituted a market and will not do so without massive expansion and liberalization. Consider that for the first eight years of its existence, Milwaukee’s program was capped at about 1,500 students, and that for the next eight it was capped at 15,000. The cap only recently rose to 22,500. Now think what similar caps in the number of prospective customers would do to, say, the personal computer industry. Microsoft, Dell, and Apple would promptly vanish in a puff of regulation. Because of its tiny size alone, the Milwaukee voucher program cannot give rise to a competitive education industry.

The Milwaukee program also imposes rigid price controls on the use of the voucher: it must be accepted as full payment by participating schools. While not all economists today are classical liberals in full agreement with Friedman and Hayek, by now they almost universally deride price controls as counterproductive. Free-floating prices, determined by supply and demand, are the key information mechanism by which markets communicate to suppliers which services are most sought, and then incentivize and help finance the increased supply of those services. If the first CD players could not have been sold for $1,000, the research and development that made it possible to sell them for $20 today would never have occurred—much less the invention of the hard-drive-based and solid-state audio players that have now eclipsed them. High initial prices for new and better products make possible the eventually low prices for improved versions of those products. The price system is an absolutely essential prerequisite of free markets.

But even if Milwaukee’s program were expanded and deregulated, it would not necessarily turn the city’s public schools into paragons of excellence. When the automobile came along, it didn’t improve the horse-drawn buggy. It replaced it. This is often the way in competitive industries: new and better products, methods, and businesses replace those that came before. When this happens, it is because consumers prefer the new over the old—a sign of market success, not market failure. This is the second reason why Stern is mistaken to blame markets for the absence of a millennial transformation in Milwaukee’s public schools.

Obvious political and cultural factors make it difficult to pass truly free-market education reforms in the United States. Because of those difficulties, it is sometimes expedient to seek modest reforms that may eventually be amended to allow the creation of truly free markets. The problem arises when these modest reforms wind up mistaken for or misrepresented as the genuine article. It is only then, as we see in Stern’s essay, that disaster strikes in the form of guilt by (false) association.

The school-choice movement does not need to reorient itself around curriculum design or standards. Free markets drive up quality by themselves, with no help from central planners. The computer on which I am writing is thousands of times more powerful and capacious than the one I used two decades ago. The price per gigabyte of iPod storage fell from $80 to $7 in its first five years. These improvements happened not because some government bureaucracy or Quango mandated them, or because technology manufacturers are overflowing with magnanimity, but because it served the interests of businesses to serve the interests of their customers. That is what markets do: unite the interests of producers with those of consumers. When we finally allow a free market to arise in education, we will see the same dramatic progress in that field that we have seen in every other. Batteries unnecessary. No central planning required.

Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History. He blogs at Cato-at-liberty.org.

Robert Enlow

Sol Stern’s article lists the familiar Greatest Hits of teachers’ union talking points: school choice isn’t politically viable, there aren’t enough private options available, and there’s no evidence that choice improves public schools. What’s new is that these discredited claims appear under the byline of an author who has long claimed to be—and still claims to be—a school-choice supporter. And therein lies a tale.

First, though, let’s quickly look at the claims themselves. Contrary to Stern’s assertions, school-choice programs have produced significant improvements in the public schools exposed to them. A large body of scientific studies confirms this, though Stern neglects to mention it. The reason that these gains are visible only with careful scientific study is that the choice programs are limited. Choice improves public schools, but not enough schools are exposed to it. This isn’t rocket science. We haven’t seen wholesale, universal improvement in public schools because we haven’t had wholesale, universal voucher programs.

Stern’s other claims are equally unfounded. He says that private schools don’t have enough capacity to serve voucher kids. In 1989, before its voucher program began, Milwaukee had about 38,500 private school students. In 2003, it had just under 138,000. If you told people in Milwaukee in 1989 that by 2003 the number of private school students would almost quadruple, they might have said: “We only have 38,500 private school seats. Where will the other 100,000 students go?” But when vouchers gave more kids the ability to attend private schools, the private school sector responded by expanding its capacity. In other words, when demand goes up, supply goes up, too. Maybe those crazy economists know something after all.

Stern says that school choice has lost its political momentum. Actually, in the last few years it has been more politically successful than ever before. In 2005, more new school-choice programs were enacted and more existing programs expanded than in any previous year. And in 2006, even more new programs were enacted and existing ones expanded than in 2005. True, vouchers lost a referendum in 2007, but that’s nothing new: referendum fights have always been the strongest ground for teachers’ unions. Still, despite occasional defeats, choice is growing.

I’ll leave it to others to refute Stern’s claims in more detail. Instead, I’d like to make two other points. First, Stern can’t have it both ways. He wants to keep one foot in the school-choice boat by saying that he still favors school-choice programs, while putting the other foot in the teachers’-union boat by declaring that school choice is neither necessary nor sufficient for serious school reform. But those boats are sailing in opposite directions, and if Stern tries to straddle them, he’s going to end up all wet.

He’s certainly right that school choice is a justice issue, and that we should favor it regardless of whether it improves public schools. But when he denies that school choice and similar “incentivist” policies are necessary for serious educational reform, he flies in the face of common sense. How is Stern going to get the government school monopoly to adopt the pedagogical reforms that he favors if he rejects the use of incentives to pressure it? And when he denies that school choice and similar policies are sufficient for serious reform, he flies in the face of the facts—as the research shows.

Second, adding Stern’s name to these union talking points doesn’t make them any more credible; the facts remain what they are. The only thing that has changed is Stern. But—contrary to what is being claimed in the media—Stern has never been a leading figure in the school choice movement, nor has he been a champion of free-market ideology. The “school choice defector” storyline that made this article appear newsworthy to some is in fact groundless.

Personalities shouldn’t matter. The argument for choice didn’t get any weaker when Stern changed his mind, any more than it got stronger when people like Diane Feinstein and Clarence Page changed their minds and became voucher supporters. Is it too much to ask that we stick to the facts and arguments, rather than paying so much attention to bylines?

Robert Enlow is executive director of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

E. D. Hirsch

I’m so glad that Sol Stern has written this piece. The response to it that I’m already hearing from die-hard choice advocates is: Well, the non-choice schools haven’t done so well either! This is an argument? Stern’s point goes far deeper: he questions whether any of the primarily structural approaches to school improvement are promising, after all. His view is that we need to talk about substance, not structure.

The choice movement is a structural approach. It relies on markets to improve outcomes, not venturing to offer guidance on precisely what the schools should be teaching. Such guidance would go against the “genius of the market” approach, which is to refrain from top-down interference with curriculum. Stern shows—rightly, I believe—that this is a fundamental failing of the choice movement.

But market-based “choice” is not the only structural reform of the recent past that has ignored substance. The government-funded “whole-school-reform” project was another metastructure that essentially said, “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” not concerning itself with what kinds of flowers. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law uses carrots and sticks to induce gains in reading and math. But it, too, is a structural approach, grandly leaving to states the details about what is taught and learned. The one area where the law does opine on substance—regarding the teaching of phonics—is the one area where genuine improvement has taken place in the earliest grades.

Let’s not forget the structural approach of the state-standards movement, either. Though state standards are, in my view, potentially the most promising reform project, they decline to offer guidance on the substance of what is taught and learned in the language arts, the most important area of early schooling. A typical state standard reads:

Students will comprehend, evaluate, and respond to works of literature and other kinds of writing which reflect their own cultures and developing viewpoints, as well as those of others. Students will demonstrate a willingness to use reading to continue to learn, to communicate, and to solve problems independently. Students will use prior knowledge to extend reading ability and comprehension. Use specific strategies such as making comparisons, predicting outcomes, drawing conclusions, identifying the main ideas, and understanding cause and effect to comprehend a variety of literary genres from diverse cultures and time periods.

And then there’s the structural orientation of the dominant theories within the educational establishment—that activities, rather than “mere facts” or a “rote-learned” academic curriculum, will induce academic progress, and that children’s natural development will allow them to gain or “construct” the needed knowledge.

All of these ideas leave the grade-by-grade specifics of the curriculum to be determined by some quasi-divine agency—the magic of the market, the wisdom of the locality, the nature of the child—in short, not mere policy makers, but somebody or something else.

Yet the grade-by-grade core substance of the curriculum is what schooling is. If there is no coherence from one grade to the next, education will be second-rate, especially when it comes to disadvantaged children, who depend heavily on formal schooling. Educational incoherence is especially deleterious for the many students who move from school to school—and who make up a forgotten 30 percent of students. Further, a laissez-faire attitude toward curriculum means that concrete decisions are left to textbook publishers, and that guidance for the substance of teacher training, for curriculum-based testing, and for the development of classroom materials doesn’t exist. All suffer in quality as a result.

The miracle to me is that, while America may be declining in workforce competence and in social cohesion, we have been able to sustain ourselves as well as we have despite the poor—and unjust—state of our schools. But we had better pay attention to what Stern is saying.

E. D. Hirsch is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and author of many acclaimed books, including Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.

Matthew Ladner

While its intellectual roots go back a long way, the modern school-choice movement basically began in 1990 with the passage of the first school-voucher law in Milwaukee. The first charter-school law appeared at about that time, too. Eighteen years into the battle for school choice, Sol Stern’s new article has set off a firestorm in the education-reform world. He asks: Where’s the beef? Are market-based reforms truly a panacea for our education problems?

Theoretically, market mechanisms could be completely transformative. As a practical matter, however, our ability to emulate a market system in education has been and will continue to encounter constraints. But this is only to say that we must pursue both choice and other reforms vigorously. Contrary to the implicit assumption of Stern’s article, there’s nothing mutually exclusive about choice and instruction-based reform.

The Manhattan Institute ranks my home state of Arizona Number One in parental choice. Thanks to a very liberal charter-school law, Arizona has 483 charter schools—and counting. Take a casual drive around Phoenix, and you’ll see several such schools. Thousands of children also use open enrollment within the public school system to transfer within and between public school districts. Spurred by the competition, public schools have begun to develop “traditional” magnet schools with back-to-basics academics. The results to date seem promising, as traditional-school test scores have been high above the national average.

Arizona also pioneered the first scholarship tax-credit program in 1997. Scholarship tax credits allow a taxpayer to make a donation to a non-profit group, and to receive a dollar-for-dollar credit in return. The non-profit groups accumulate funds and grant scholarships to children to help defray private-school costs. Arizona’s program has since been imitated in Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. The original program for individual taxpayers raised $51 million last year to help children attend private schools. This past year, a similar credit for corporations, passed in 2006, raised an additional $12 million. In addition, Arizona has voucher programs for children with disabilities and those in foster care, and a vigorous home-schooling movement, to boot.

Yet while Arizona seems like school-choice paradise to an outsider, even its system of choice is only a pale reflection of a true market system. Arizona enacted its charter-school law in 1994, and since then, approximately three students have newly enrolled into the Arizona school districts for each one exiting through charters and/or tax credits. Even the worst-performing school districts in the state have more students today than they did in 1994.

Watching deeply dysfunctional school districts continue to build new facilities to deal with over-enrollment is a far cry from the cleansing creative destruction of the market. Studies by Caroline Hoxby and later, the Goldwater Institute, found that public schools improve when facing significant levels of competition. But competition is the exception, not the rule, even in Arizona. Something closer to creative destruction occurs in the charter-school sector, where poorly performing schools and dysfunctional school districts are not immortal. Eighty-nine charter schools have closed in Arizona since the passage of the law, separating the wheat from the chaff.

While district schools outnumber charter schools by more than four-to-one in Arizona, charter schools make up nine of the top-ten performing public high schools in the greater Phoenix area, as ranked by Terra Nova based on reading scores. The top-ranked public elementary, middle, and high schools of Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, Tempe, and Mesa are all charter schools as well.

Defying a national trend, Catholic school enrollment continues to expand. So much so, in fact, that every Catholic school in Phoenix has either recently completed or is in the midst of a capital campaign.

So has competition been a panacea for Arizona’s education woes? Far from it, but even Arizona has only taken tentative first steps towards a truly competitive system. Should Arizona lawmakers pursue other education reforms as well? Of course they should: we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Our public schools will never improve, though, until we align the interests of the adults working in the system with those of the children attending them.

Don’t give up on us, Sol. Choice faces formidable political enemies and a public that is not ready for much creative destruction in schooling. We should not fail to take note of the real gains achieved over the last 18 years. Nationally, nearly one-fourth of K-12 students attend schools other than their zoned public schools, opting instead for an array of public and private options—open enrollment, magnet, charter, private, and home schools.

We’re trapped in a war of attrition with defenders of the status quo. But it’s a war we are winning.

Matthew Ladner is Vice President for Research at the Goldwater Institute, a non-profit research organization developing policy solutions that foster economic and educational freedom.

Neal McCluskey

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.

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.

Diane Ravitch

I was delighted to read Sol Stern’s article. The problems of education are so complex that we must commit ourselves to view the evidence with open minds and be prepared to change course in light of new evidence.

In my experience, there are generally two camps of choice advocates: those who believe that markets and competition will produce better schools, just as they produce better products for the shopping mall, and those who support choice for students who, for whatever reason, need an escape hatch from the regular public schools. I count myself in the latter camp. I do not think it wise to use choice as a battering ram to destroy our system of public education. Our goal as a society should be to improve our regular public schools and to use choice schools judiciously as laboratories for innovation. Schools are not like businesses or hamburger franchises. They are vital parts of their communities. In terms of public policy, we should think of public schools the way we think of firehouses: a good one should exist in every neighborhood. If a neighborhood does not have a good public school, then policymakers should work to make sure that it does.

I do not believe that markets and choice will automatically produce better schools for all children. In a district characterized by markets and choice, schools would range from bad to mediocre to excellent, just as the thousands of charter schools operating today already do. Choice advocates point to a tiny number of exemplary charter schools (KIPP, Achievement First, and Core Knowledge, for example). The theory of markets and choice suggests that other charter schools will copy the successful ones and that the district schools will copy them as well. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this is the case. Charter schools continue to vary in quality, and public school districts make little or no effort to copy even the successful ones.

Stern refers to a debate in which I participated a year ago at the Hoover Institution. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and I argued for the proposition that “true school reform demands more attention to curriculum and instruction than to markets and choice.” In my remarks, I described a meeting of the International Evaluation Association at which scholars from around the world discussed the findings of international tests. American students, as is well known, score about average on most of these tests. The lead paper at the conference concluded that the key elements associated with high educational achievement in the top-scoring nations were a strong and sequential curriculum, effective instruction, adequate resources, willing students, and a cultural climate in which education was respected and encouraged. There was no mention of choice and markets.

As Stern recalls, I also proposed a thought experiment, an extreme form of the proposition that we were debating. Imagine a school system—be it at the national, state, or district level—that gives an absolutely unlimited choice of schools, public and private, but that has no set curriculum and that lets teachers teach whatever they want, however they want. In such a laissez-faire environment, there will be a very great diversity of schools: thousands of flowers will bloom, as will thousands of weeds. I referred to this unfettered choice system as Plan A.

Contrast this scenario with Plan B, a school system that has no choice whatever but that does have an excellent curriculum and teachers who know how to teach it. There is a coherent, year-by-year progression of studies in science, history, literature, geography, civics, economics, and the arts. Teachers in each grade know what they are expected to teach. In history, for example, students in the early grades learn about the great deeds of significant men and women, study distant civilizations, and begin to understand chronology and the relation between causes and effects. The curriculum would guide not just teachers, but also teacher-education institutions, professional development programs, and textbook publishers—leading to better prepared teachers, better textbooks, and better tests.

Plan A is the goal toward which many choice advocates are striving. Plan B describes the Massachusetts reform strategy, which made that state first in the nation on every one of the federal tests of mathematics and reading in fourth and eighth grades. So I agree with Sol Stern. Curriculum and instruction are the sine qua non of school reform, and we will have a far more successful school system if we devote our energies to improving them.

Diane Ravitch is a historian and Research Professor of Education at New York University.

Sol Stern Responds

For several of my critics, it’s apparently not enough to judge me wrong on the issues and the facts. They also accuse me of apostasy and moral flaws. Like a school reform commissar, Robert Enlow reads me out of the choice movement. My arguments are not to be taken seriously, he says, because I am a collaborator with the class enemy—the teacher unions. Jay Greene refers to Diane Ravitch, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and me as “dissidents,” thus implying that his side’s position in this controversy should be accorded official status. Neal McCluskey is civil enough in his response published here, but in a post on the Cato Institute website he attributed my policy aberrations, and those of Ravitch and Hirsch, to our being in league with—guess who?—those nefarious “neoconservatives.”

It didn’t occur to me until reading these pieces that school choice had become a secular faith, requiring enforced discipline. The strangest of these criticisms is Jay Greene’s assertion that, merely by publishing my article in City Journal, I broke a longstanding “truce” between the incentivist and instructionist factions of the school reform movement. Since this was the first time that I’d ever heard about this truce (was it signed at the 38th parallel?), I checked with Ravitch and Hirsch, the nation’s two leading instructionists. The truce was news to them, too.

But my article is not the real problem here. Rather, what’s troubling is the plea for unity through an enforced code of silence between incentivist and instructionist school reformers. The implication is that, if I have come to the conclusion that vouchers and charters are not producing the results once promised, I should just keep it to myself. And I guess vice versa: if Greene or one of his fellow incentivists discovers something faulty about a particular instructionist proposal for reform—for example, that students do better if they acquire content knowledge in the early grades, as Hirsch argues—they shouldn’t go public with such criticism. I certainly don’t accept such an understanding, or truce, and I can’t imagine why any school reformer should.

As for the substantive points made by Greene and other critics, I will try to answer as many as space allows. First, according to Greene, I was wrong to announce prematurely “the political death of vouchers in particular, [and] of incentive reforms in general.” Furthermore, he says that I was at fault for considering only voucher programs for poor children, and that I ignored what he and some other critics regard as an expansion in recent years of other important variants of choice and market-style reforms—including charters, tuition tax credits, and merit-pay schemes for teachers.

But this is a complete misreading of my article. I focused on the dim prospects for expansion of voucher programs like Milwaukee’s for the same reason that I wrote so hopefully about these programs in the past. It’s indisputable that the school choice movement placed a big bet on vouchers to bring about transformation of rotten inner-city school districts. It’s just as indisputable that the repeated failure to get voucher referenda passed in the states has been a blow to the movement. To say otherwise is to keep raising false hopes.

It’s true that my article doesn’t pay much attention to the growing charter school sector. That’s a reasonable point for my critics to make. My belief, though, is that the voucher option has always been—and still is—the Number One objective of the choice movement. Even if I had chosen to write about charter schools (which I have in the past), I would have noted that experts like Chester Finn find their record very spotty so far. No doubt my critics would then have pounced on this as further evidence of apostasy.

On the other hand, Greene is wrong when he says that I didn’t pay attention to the recent spread of “incentive reforms” like merit pay. Anyone who reads my article will discover a major section on the growth of market incentives within public school systems, most prominently in New York under the educational leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Greene and I may disagree about how effective those new market reforms are (as I will expand on later), but it’s simply false to claim that my article doesn’t discuss them.

Second, Greene says that the school choice movement has little reason to be concerned about the closing of thousands of urban Catholic schools, a problem that can be alleviated, he believes, by pushing for more vouchers and tuition tax credits. This reflects precisely the approach that leads some school choice reformers to ignore reality. As I have previously written in City Journal, the demise of inner-city Catholic schools is the result of long-term and seemingly irreversible demographic and economic trends, and politicians who pay lip service to these life-saving schools but then refuse to vote for tuition tax credits or vouchers aren’t helping. I am saddened by this development and hope against hope for a miraculous solution. But facts are facts. In most of the Northeast and the rust belt (prospects are somewhat better in the South and Southwest), Catholic inner-city schools are closing at such a rapid rate that there soon may not be any left to save, even if we should one day win passage of generous tuition tax credits.

In that regard, Greene’s assessment of the prospects for Catholic schools in Detroit and Washington, D.C. is way too optimistic. Catholic schools are closing in the nation’s capital despite enrolling students who come with generous, federally financed tuition vouchers. That some of these schools (and some in Detroit as well) are converting to charters and ending their religious teaching in order to survive shouldn’t comfort us. After all, the research shows that the spiritual and religious component of Catholic schooling is partly responsible for lifting the performance of voucher students, whereas the secular charter schools have a decidedly mixed record in improving outcomes for disadvantaged inner-city kids. Trading voucher schools for charters is hardly a step forward for school reform.

Third, Greene and several of his fellow critics are dismissive of my contention that in Milwaukee, site of the nation’s largest school choice experiment, competition from voucher schools has not produced the improvements in regular public schools that proponents of market solutions had hoped for. Greene says correctly that “this cuts to the heart of the matter” and then tries to dismantle my case. He first argues that I didn’t control for factors other than competition that might explain Milwaukee’s lack of improvement. “It’s always possible that things would be even worse if not for competition,” Greene says. (Okay, I agree: anything is possible.) But then, after this apparent concession that there was no significant improvement in Milwaukee, Greene cites two studies (one of which I acknowledged in my article) that show that there was improvement in the public schools as a result of the voucher program.

The problem is that both of these studies ended in 2002. Here are a couple of updates. In 2002, 40 percent of Milwaukee tenth-graders were reading at proficiency; in 2006, the last year for which data are available, 39.7 percent were. Since the proficiency standards for Wisconsin achievement tests are extremely low compared with those of the highly regarded federal NAEP tests, these figures suggest that more than 60 percent of Milwaukee high school sophomores are functionally illiterate and, moreover, that there has been no recent improvement since 2002.

Then there’s this depressing news from the 2007 NAEP tests. As education reporter Alan Borsuk reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The average reading ability for fourth- and eighth-grade black students in Wisconsin is the lowest of any state, and the reading achievement gap between black students and white students in Wisconsin continues to be the worst in the nation.” Approximately 70 percent of Wisconsin’s black students attend Milwaukee public schools, Borsuk adds, which suggests that a great part of the state’s failure lies in Milwaukee.

Greene says that in addition to the Milwaukee situation, I should have investigated the relationship between the introduction of choice and improved public school performance in Florida. I limited my focus to Milwaukee partly for space considerations, but also because of Milwaukee’s centrality to the national school choice story. I would be glad to take a good look at the Florida story, and it would make me happy if I could confirm the connection between competition and public school improvement. But I get the feeling that there is something ideological, not factual, preventing Greene and some of my other critics from acknowledging that Milwaukee now confounds their theory of reform. They ought to take a lesson from Howard Fuller, one of the founders of the Milwaukee voucher program, who has honestly expressed his disappointment at the lack of progress in the city’s public schools.

Fourth, I’m not entirely sure what point Jay Greene is trying to make in his two paragraphs addressing what I wrote about the nation’s 1,500 ed schools—that they seem to disprove the theory that markets and choice will automatically improve education. Greene writes: “Stern thinks that the incentivist side is crippled by Diane Ravitch’s ‘unchallenged’ observation that ‘the dominant ideas of the schools of education’ will make even schools under choice systems adopt ‘whole language and fuzzy math,’ as well as other unproductive instructional approaches.”

But I didn’t come close to asserting anything like this. Rather, I merely observed that Ravitch’s comment in a Koret Task Force debate about the “dominant ideas” of the ed schools caught my attention, and that her statement slipped by and went unchallenged by the other side. I then went on to make an entirely different case, one that had nothing to do with anything said by Ravitch or the incentivists in the Koret debate. I said that the nation’s 1,500 ed schools appear to demonstrate all the traits of competition and choice that the market theorists claim will automatically bring about good education—yet they consistently produce very bad education.

Greene provides no solid explanation for this apparent conundrum. All he offers is guesswork. To wit: competition and markets don’t work their magic in the ed schools because there is no competition in the K–12 schools. Since there is no payoff for excellence in the public schools, Greene speculates, there is no pressure on the ed schools to turn out more effective teachers. But that speculation is easily refuted by the New York City school system that Greene holds up as a bellwether for market approaches in a public school system. As Greene knows, Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg are instituting lots of payoffs, including rich monetary rewards, for excellence and higher test scores. Yet at the same time, they have completely caved to progressive education schools like Columbia University’s Teachers College on issues of classroom instruction.

Greene hasn’t helped on this particular front. Bloomberg and Klein opted to impose failed instructional strategies from Teachers College, including whole-language reading instruction, early in 2003. In a 2004 op-ed piece in the New York Post, Greene urged New Yorkers to get behind Klein’s reforms anyway. Greene wasn’t asking us to support the city’s wrong turn on instruction, which didn’t interest him. Rather, he detected that Klein was pursuing incentivist reforms, such as charters, and changing the teachers’ contract. That was enough for Greene to proclaim Klein a “revolutionary” and to write that “reformers should be dancing a jig” about New York’s structural changes.

But Greene’s enthusiasm helps illustrate my argument about the incentivist reforms in New York City. Greene says that these reforms “haven’t even been implemented yet, let alone subjected to rigorous evaluation,” and that therefore my “comparison of NAEP scores between 2003 and 2007 can’t possibly speak to the effects of programs not yet in effect.” But my point was a different one: that Greene and other incentivists were so smitten by the prospects of New York’s adopting market reforms that they were “dancing a jig” even before any “rigorous evaluation” of the results had been done.

Fifth, Greene’s comments on the “Massachusetts miracle” are unconvincing. He concedes that the Massachusetts schools’ unprecedented academic gains are “very encouraging,” but then attempts to diminish their significance by stating the obvious fact that they were due to the persistence of a group of officials who might be replaced by other officials (and a new governor) not so inclined to do the right thing in education. But the same lesson applies as well to the incentivist model in Florida, where new governor Charlie Crist seems ready to dismantle many of Jeb Bush’s market and accountability reforms.

I have a proposal for Greene that might begin to restore the truce that he still wants between incentivists and instructionists: I will sign a letter to Crist asking him to preserve all of the Bush market reforms, if he will join Diane Ravitch and me in urging Bloomberg and Klein to institute reading programs that have passed the test of science in the city’s schools.

Let me now comment on a few points in Tom Carroll’s thoughtful response, which has the virtue of reflecting the experience of someone who has actually created good schools with instructional programs that have been proven to work. Still, I think that Carroll has misread my article in some places and is wrong about several key issues. For starters, he is being strikingly naive about the school choice movement when he says that few people in the movement believe that “choice is a panacea.” All Carroll has to do is read the responses here from Andrew Coulson, Robert Enlow, and Neal McCluskey to see that this claim is prominent within the movement. John Chubb and Terry Moe are still young and active and remain major players in the school choice movement; last I heard, they haven’t abandoned their belief in school choice as a cure-all.

Carroll also misinterprets my analysis of the Catholic school crisis. Of course he is right that if we could convince our state’s politicians to make per-pupil spending on students fully portable, we could save more of the Catholic schools. But he knows that that’s a pipe dream, which I assume is why he smartly shifted his reform efforts from vouchers to charters. In the meantime, the reality is that inner-city Catholic schools in Albany and New York are dying. Thus my point remains that we are inevitably headed for a time when, even if vouchers suddenly became politically viable, there would be few Catholic schools left to take voucher kids.

Finally, Carroll is completely off base in saying that I support “a one-dimensional focus on instructional improvement—trading one panacea for another.” In my article, I emphasize over and over again that I support the choice programs that exist, that there should be more private voucher programs, and that some incentivist reforms, such as teacher pay scales that reflect the labor market, would be helpful. If Carroll nevertheless thinks that I’m still overstressing the importance of getting classroom instruction right, I have an experiment he might want to try: let him put his Albany charter schools on a diet of whole-language reading instruction and constructivist math for two or three years, and then report back on how much academic improvement his schools have delivered.

I also want to thank my old school choice movement friend, Matt Ladner, for his thoughtful reply, and to assure him that I haven’t “given up” on choice experiments as such. I would certainly welcome an opportunity for more firsthand study—preferably in the winter!—of the impact of the massive Arizona charter school experiment. I agree that there’s “nothing mutually exclusive about choice and instruction-based reform.” That’s true theoretically, but as I have tried to show in my article and in this exchange, the reality is that most advocates of market reforms in education have very little understanding of what happens in classrooms. Like Skinnerian behavioral psychologists, they are primarily focused on measuring education through stimulus and response, and, like the Skinnerians, they tend to regard the classroom as a black box. One of the country’s leading school choice scholars once told me point-blank that he didn’t know anything about the classroom and wasn’t interested in the classroom.

Coulson, Enlow, and McCluskey, the three advocates of a pure market approach to education, have many negative things to say about my article. No matter what I might say about the shortcomings of current school choice approaches in improving education for disadvantaged inner-city children, their retort will always be that my criticism doesn’t really count because we have never yet tried a true, pure market system of education. That’s exactly right—but it’s totally irrelevant. As Diane Ravitch says in her response, these people want to use school choice as a battering ram to bring down all public education. Is it possible that out of the wreckage there will be a brave new world of much better schools? Maybe, but brave new worlds haven’t had a very good track record in the last century.

That said, I enjoyed Coulson’s Shakespearean analogy, picturing me as Romeo needlessly drinking poison over the imaginary death of the school choice movement. In return, I offer him an analogy from another play of Shakespeare’s, The Tempest. Coulson and his market-education comrades are shipwrecked on a desert island. It’s a blank canvas, and they begin to construct a perfect society with perfect schools, run by the market’s invisible hand. And then one of the school reformers wakes up and says: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air. . . . We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.”

I think this forum proves that there is no reason to paper over our disagreements. It’s healthy for the cause of school reform to have these public debates, and I congratulate City Journal—and earlier, the Koret Task Force—for encouraging them.

Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.


Sol Stern is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.


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