Monday, April 7, 2008

School Choice Isn't the Answer

Well, the school choice debate seems is still with us. Months after Sol Stern (a longtime advocate of school choice) published a piece in City Journal saying that he'd pretty much changed his mind on the issue, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece saying that Stern is wrong.

Here's the argument boiled down: Stern used to say that he supported school choice (charter schools, private school vouchers, etc.) because they allowed poor kids to escape their failing schools. In doing so, this would also bring market forces to bear on the education system which would improve all schools. Now, he says that the evidence doesn't support his position. He says that in cities like Milwaukee that have introduced major voucher programs there has not been a similar upturn in the quality of education as a whole. Therefore, he concludes, school choice doesn't provide the market incentives that he thought they did and the program isn't as successful as he thought it would be.

The Wall Street Journal says he should have stuck with his original position.

I tend to agree with the new Sol Stern, at least on this issue. His position on changing pedagogy is for another post.

As I've written before and will probably write again (no link yet), free public education is one of the essential preparations for living in a democratic society. As such, I'm deeply suspicious of any attempts to begin to privatize that system, which is exactly what happens with charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Even with that, I'm not opposed to reforms that will improve public education for all students.

For the sake of argument, let's assume (as Stern and the WSJ do) that charter and private schools will always serve children better than traditional public schools do. This is a slightly dubious argument and one that is hard to prove given the lack of apples to apples comparisons that can be made. Even with this assumption, the only thing proven by a successful charter or private school is that good schools produce good results. This would apply equally to public or private schools.

Put another way, if a charter school truly works, it's because that school is doing something effective, not because it calls itself a charter school. If something is effective it can be copied by other schools, be they public or private. The argument, then, is really just that we should have good schools. Seems obvious enough.

The way see that charter schools/private school vouchers can be really justified and defended is that the competition from these programs will cause the public schools to improve. The thinking here is that competition will breed success. But empirically, that's not the case. As Stern notes, there was no "Miwaukee miracle." Public schools across the city didn't improve just because there was competition. There is a lack of evidence to show that privatizing education has any widespread positive impact on a school system. As such, the argument that privitization for some kids will create better results for all kids simply doesn't stand up.

What you're left with is an argument that schools can be made better than they are and a failed argument about competition and market forces. That's a pretty weak leg to stand on while making an argument about undermining something as important as public education.

1 comment:

Bridget said...

Hi, I'm a TFA alum and I found your blog from the LEE email blasts. I share some of your feelings about charter schools/school choice, but I think that school choice is an important *part* of the solution. I definitely agree that a school can be good or bad whether it is district or charter, but I think it's harder to be a good district school right now. Good charter schools offer examples of how other schools could be. And while I wish that all of the kids in our district could attend a school like ours (a charter), I'm glad our 300 kids have a chance. An interesting perspective on all this is the article "The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First," by James Forman, Jr. I see GOOD charter schools as the new freedom schools.