Hess offers ways to change the system and expectation level of voucher advocates to more closely match the difficulty of improving education. I don’t agree with many of his suggestions, but I do agree with his admission that private involvement hasn’t done much to bring about change. Here’s his opening paragraph:
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. 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.
Frederick M. Hess is director of educational-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His next book, The Same Thing Over and Over, will be published in November.