The Wilson Quarterly

The initial gains from the school choice movement have fizzled, concludes Sol Stern, author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice (2003). While efforts to give parents vouchers for private schools and establish charter schools have liberated thousands of children from stultifying public classrooms, experience has dashed Stern’s hope that a powerful dose of the free market would cure morbidity in the nation’s public ­schools.

Choice is not enough, he argues. Evidence is “meager” that ­voucher-­financed competition from private schools has made public schools any better. Voters have resoundingly defeated voucher programs in five straight state referendums. Prospects for future voucher programs are undermined by the financial crises of inner-city Catholic schools. What is needed is not merely the invisible hand of competition fostering the best schools and driving out the worst. In a contest between economically oriented ­free-­market visionaries (the incentivists) and curriculum and pedagogical reformers (the instructionists), Stern now tilts toward the instructionist camp. Improving the education of the nation’s 50 million public-school children will require a rigorous, ­content-­based curriculum and stricter teacher ­licensing.

This conclusion is borne out in New York City and the state of Massachusetts, he says. On the Monopoly board of school reform, New York City has placed all of its hotels on choice and competition. Unfortunately, the city has pushed the free-market philosophy “far beyond where the evidence leads,” Stern believes. New York City principals and teachers can get cash bonuses if they produce better student test scores, and parents can get money for showing up at parent-teacher conferences. But fourth- and ­eighth-­grade readers have shown no improvement. By con­trast, Massachusetts, where school choice is limited to only a few charter schools, has raised scores in both reading and math. The real Massachusetts miracle, according to Stern, is the state’s strong ­content-­based curriculum, certification regulations that require teachers to master that content, and serious ­testing.

Stern’s critics have since responded to his article not only by attacking his ideas and facts, but also by accusing him of “apostasy and moral flaws,” he laments. Jay P. Greene, the head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, charges that Stern has broken a “truce” between education reformers who push choice and those who advance curriculum changes. Education reform is like curing cancer, Greene says. It’s a slow process, but that’s no reason to give up. Without competitive pressure, what would cause education leaders to adopt any changes at all in curriculum or teaching ­methods?

Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom, says that Stern has mistakenly confused tiny and highly regulated school choice programs with real ­free-­market schooling, which would require hundreds of thousands of potential customers. And Robert Enlow, executive director of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, dismisses Stern for citing a tired list of “greatest hits of teachers’ union talking points,” for making unfounded claims that school choice hasn't made signifi­cant improvements in public schools, and for failing to mention evidence that contradicts his views. The blistering retorts to Stern’s points suggest that hell hath no fury like the school choice movement scorned.

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The Source: "School Choice Isn't Enough" by Sol Stern, in City Journal, Winter 2008, and "Is School Choice Enough?" responses, www.city-journal.org. January 24, 2008. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Monika Holnkis

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