Let a Thousand Choices Bloom

Debating the future of education reform.

Fifty years after Milton Friedman first proposed the idea of education vouchers, school choice proposals come in all shapes and sizes. We asked a dozen experts what reforms they think are most necessary and promising to improve American education. We also asked them to identify the biggest obstacles to positive change. Here are their answers. Comments should be sent to

Lisa Snell

Snell is director of the Education and Child Welfare Program at the Reason Foundation.

Most necessary reform: Any reform that directly attaches money to the backs of children and allows them to choose any school, without regard to residential restrictions, holds promise. The actual choice mechanism–tax credit, charter school, or voucher–is less important than a child’s having substantial purchasing power and an open system that allows many different types of schools to compete for the child’s funding.

While many free-market scholars view public charter schools as a more marginal school-choice reform, these schools do demonstrate what can happen when students have both a true open enrollment system and purchasing power rivaling that of students enrolled in traditional public schools.

With close to 1 million students enrolled nationwide and more than 3,400 contracts between charter schools and their government authorizers, charter schools may be the most common example of school choice. The number of both for-profit and nonprofit charter schools continues to increase. In 2005 there were at least 500 public schools being operated by 51 for-profit management companies in 28 states. There has also been substantially more specialization and branding of nonprofit charter schools. There are well-known national nonprofit brands, such as KIPP Academies, and there are scores of for-profit and nonprofit charters that operate a handful of schools each focusing on the Montessori method, or math and science, or the performing arts.

I’m not saying that charter schools, with their often burdensome regulations, are the best mechanism for school choice. But in order to have substantial growth, school choice programs need students with substantial purchasing power, and they need to be open to a larger student population. Most existing school-choice programs qualify students based on income and disability restrictions.

Biggest obstacle: One significant barrier to more school choice is the implicit acceptance of our archaic system of residential school assignment. Parents are used to selecting a school based on their real estate choices. In cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which have designed enrollment systems to allow any child to choose any public school, the most resistance has come from parents who do not want other children pushing their own child out of the preferred neighborhood school. Everything from the real estate industry to school rankings based on test scores is set up to reinforce the idea of school assignment by address. Imagine if our higher education system worked that way.

Changing the cultural and institutional structures that reinforce school assignment is one crucial element for expanding the number of choices available to students and their families.

Andrew Coulson

Coulson is a senior fellow in education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and a member of the Advisory Council of the E.G. West Centre for Market Solutions in Education at the University of Newcastle. He is the author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

Most necessary reform: Choice is a necessary but insufficient condition for the creation of an education marketplace. The international and historical evidence suggests that effective education markets rely on the interaction of parental choice, direct parental payment, minimal regulation, vigorous competition, and the profit motive.

To best serve the public’s needs and ideals, we must not only create an education market, we must ensure universal access to it. Some third-party financial assistance is therefore necessary, but it must be minimized because it impedes the market’s effectiveness by relieving parents of direct financial responsibility. It is also important to avoid compelling taxpayers to fund instruction that violates their convictions, in order to avoid social tensions over the content of schooling.

One policy most effectively advances these sometimes competing goals: a combined personal/donation tax credit. First, parents with school-aged children not enrolled in government schools should be eligible for credits of up to several thousand dollars, whether they are home-schooling, sending their children to private schools, or a combination of the two. This will allow them to spend more of their own money on their children’s education. Second, individuals and businesses that pay for the education of someone else’s school-aged child (whether directly or by donating to a scholarship fund) should be eligible for a credit.

In the case of scholarship donations, the credit should have either no cap or a very generous cap. In the case of direct payments, it should have the same cap as the personal-use credit claimable by parents. These credits should be non-refundable, which is to say they should never result in a net payment from state coffers to a taxpayer. They should be applicable to state and local income and property taxes. (The Constitution gives the federal government no role in education.)

Biggest obstacle: The greatest barrier to reform is that, when it comes to education, Americans have lost sight of the distinction between means and ends. Our state-run school system is no longer recognized as just one possible tool for pursuing universal education; it has come to be misperceived as an ultimate goal in and of itself. The term “public education” has come to refer to both the institution of public schooling and the ideals that the institution is meant to advance.

In George Orwell’s 1984, the state deliberately circumscribes its citizens’ vocabulary to impede dissenting thought. The conflation of educational means and ends in modern America produces a similar result. Many Americans can no longer even imagine a world in which education is delivered other than via a government monopoly. And criticisms of state schooling are often misconstrued or misrepresented as attacks on the idea of universal access to good schools.

Those with a vested interest in the status quo are so effective in scuttling reforms because they leverage this equivocation between means and ends. If it can be eradicated, or even mitigated, it will dramatically advance the cause of educational excellence.

Marshall Fritz

Fritz is president of the Alliance for the Separation of School & State.

Most necessary reform: None. “Reform” implies the government is still involved. We need to transform America’s collectivist approach to education into free-market education. This means ending not only compulsory funding but compulsory attendance and content. We must separate schools from the state.

Biggest obstacle: Tax-funded school vouchers are the biggest obstacle to improving education. They will again trick parents into believing school improvement is just around the corner. They could delay return to a genuine free market by a generation or more. Vouchers replace today’s monopoly with a “monopsony” (single buyer). Schools will have only one customer to serve–and it’s not you. Follow the money.

As Douglas Dewey once asked, “How is moving from 88 percent of the school population in dependency to nearly 100 percent a good first step toward zero percent? What possibly could motivate edu-welfare parents to demand a lower and lower voucher?”

The cost of vouchers is exorbitant: converting virtually all of today’s 27,000 independent schools into “public school look-alikes” whose competition will be merely grubbing for government bucks.

Educational tax credits are merely covert mutations of the entitlement cancer. Experience shows they can be sold only with deceit, e.g., “You’re getting your own money back” and “It’s a voluntary contribution to a scholarship fund.” And charter schools are simply privately owned lapdog schools on a slightly longer government leash. A dog on a long leash is still a dog on a leash.

Embrace full choice. Start with your own children. Remove them from school-by-government. You’ll not be paying twice for education: You’ll pay taxes for the state to harm other people’s children, but you’ll pay only once for education–your children’s.

Williamson Evers

Evers is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Most necessary reform: I’m less interested in the label put on a reform and more interested in getting the framework for evaluation right. Education reformers should take seriously the rights and interests of parents, schoolchildren, and taxpayers. But priority has to go to the framework of liberty.

For example, students have a right to drop out of school, because such a right is among our human liberties. We would advise a student to stay in school. Indeed, we know that finishing school and delaying marriage and babies is excellent advice for avoiding poverty. But in a framework of liberty, dropping out is allowed, even if it isn’t advisable. Similarly, American society is pluralistic and hetero-geneous. Any reform should take into account that pluralism. Although schools tend to converge on a common core of content, different students will have different additional needs.

Finally, education reformers need to face the fact that K-12 education is increasingly coming from a plurality of providers. We need reforms (whatever their labels) that enhance student learning and that respect our society’s pluralism and institutions of constitutional liberty.

Biggest obstacle: If I had to pick the idea that is the biggest barrier to authentic education reform, I would pick the “retail fallacy.” Too many middle-class Americans have decided that the public school their child goes to (because of where the family lives) is fine, even though there are problems at other schools. This is an illusion. American schools are not performing well, and students are not achieving their potential. People have the same tendency to think that their local hospital is fine but the medical system across the country is in trouble, and that their congressman is fine even though Congress as a whole is a mess.

The middle class is active in civic improvement and is the largest potential constituency for school reform. But, as Tom Bethell puts it, “parents are often wary of reforms because they worry that their own schools could lose out to others in a zero-sum reshuffle.”

Clint Bolick

Bolick is president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice.

Most necessary reform: Given the tenacity and power of those who have a powerful stake in the status quo, freedom advocates cannot afford to oppose anything that meaningfully expands parental choice. Tuition and scholarship tax credits entail the least government regulation, but vouchers are more concentrated and can drive systemic public school reform. Let a thousand school choice flowers bloom, and we can see which variety works best.

Ultimately, we need to redefine “public education,” focusing less on where education takes place and more on whether it takes place. A child learning at home in front of a computer or in a religious school is advancing the true goals of public education; a child trapped in a crime-infested public school with little prospect of learning is not.

If we were starting today a system of public education from scratch, with all of the technological innovations at our disposal, would it look anything like the ossified, hidebound, bricks-and-mortar, command-and-control, homo-genous, bureaucratic, bloated, inefficient, special-interest-dominated monopoly that represents the biggest socialist system west of China and south of the U.S. Postal System? Of course not. We would create a system that is tailored to the individual needs of every child.

We have the capacity to do just that, by giving power over educationfunding to parents to spend wherever they wish: in public schools, private schools, home schools, tutoring, or some combination. Government should be a funder rather than a monopoly provider of education; local school boards should be providers of educational services, not ideological politburos; and public school principals, teachers, and parents should all have greater autonomy.

Biggest obstacle: The greatest institutional obstacles to systemic education reform are teachers unions, school boards and administrators, and schools of education. Good teachers have nothing to fear from competition–indeed, they obtain more power over their classrooms and sometimes even higher pay. But unions could lose members, dues, and political clout. Bureaucrats and local politicians do lose out in a market system of education–neither producers nor consumers of education find them of much value. Schools of education, which largely control the supply of schoolteachers (and have an abysmal track record to show for it), also lose if teachers are chosen on the basis of skill and merit rather than surviving a stultifying curriculum. All use public funds or compulsory dues to fight school choice.

Howard Fuller

Fuller is a distinguished professor of education and founder/director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

Most necessary reform: I’m not a supporter of universal vouchers. I support targeted vouchers for low-income and working-class people. People with money have always had choice: If their schools aren’t working, they can either move to communities where they do work or put their kids in private school. It’s only poor and working-class families that are forced to keep their children in schools that do not work for them.

Biggest obstacle: The people who support the status quo are much more politically powerful at this point than people who are supporting reforms such as parental choice. It’s the teachers unions, of course, but also the administrator organizations, school board associations, and in many instances schools of education. That’s not to say no one in these sectors wants children to succeed; the vast majority probably do. The question is whether they’re willing to have structures, processes, and power arrangements that will allow that to happen.

Terry M. Moe

Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University. His book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, written with John E. Chubb, is among the most influential and controversial works on education.

Most necessary reform: Anything that brings more choice to parents, especially poor parents, is likely to create a constituency for choice. Once you’ve got a constituency, you’ve got more political power and more ability to resist any kind of step backward. In my view vouchers are much more promising than charter schools, though both of them push in the same direction. Charter schools tend to be more affected by politics and by districts. They are still part of the public school system; districts still try to retain control over them; the unions are trying harder to unionize them, and to keep as many restrictions on them as possible. In part that’s because charter schools have more support, and are much more of an immediate danger to the unions. They’re doing a reasonable job right now of keeping vouchers bottled up in the courts.

The best state model is Florida. They’ve got their A-Plus program for kids in underperforming schools; they also have their tax credit program and the McKay program for special-ed kids. That program for special-ed kids is really potentially explosive, because they have something like 350,000 special-ed kids who qualify for vouchers there. Over time, if it catches on and doesn’t get derailed by the courts, that could be spectacularly successful.

Biggest obstacle: Political power is the obstacle. There are reformers who are concerned about what’s best for kids, but the vested interests that arise are more concerned with protecting the status quo; that’s their livelihood. The unions in particular are extremely powerful and want to prevent any kind of threatening changes. And I don’t know that there’s an answer to that other than to amass power on the choice side.

Jacob G. Hornberger

Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Most necessary reform: The only genuine system of choice in education is one in which people are free to keep their own money and educate their children in the manner they deem best. No compulsory attendance laws, and no school taxes. No government involvement at all. A total free market in education.

Public schooling is really nothing more than socialist central planning–bureaucratic boards, compulsory attendance, and government-approved schoolteachers, textbooks, and curricula. Politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government plan, in a top-down, army-like fashion, the educations of multitudes of students.

Ultimately, the case against public schooling is a moral one. Under what moral authority does the state take control over the educational decisions of the family? Under what moral authority does the state take one person’s money in order to fund the educational expenses of other people’s children, either to attend public school or, with a government welfare voucher, to attend a private school?

There’s only one way for freedom, the free market, moral principles, and genuine educational choice to triumph–and that’s through the total separation of school and state.

Biggest obstacle: The biggest hurdle we face in achieving full educational choice is a lack of confidence in the free market when it comes to education.

Despite the manifest failure of socialism and the clear success of the free market, people lack confidence that the market will work successfully with education. They don’t trust the free market to provide quality education the way they trust it to provide quality food, clothing, housing, automobiles, and computers.

Unfortunately, as well-meaning as they might be, voucher proponents reinforce that lack of trust. If they truly believe that a free market in education would succeed, why would they feel the need to advocate welfare, which is what vouchers are, as a way to get there?

John Merrifield

Merrifield is a professor of economics of the University of Texas at San Antonio, a senior research fellow of the Education Policy Institute and the Independent Institute, and the author of The School Choice Wars.

Most necessary reform: Getting the government out of schooling may be optimal, but there is little chance of implementing that without a long intermediate stage where the government stops providing school through government-owned facilities staffed by government employees, but still subsidizes K-12 schooling through vouchers or tax credits. That subsidy-only stage–ending the present discrimination against private school users–is absolutely necessary to fully harness market forces, and it’s the most promising politically. It does not leave low-income families at the mercy of philanthropist-funded schooling; it establishes equitable sharing of school subsidies; and it does not entail “cutting” education funding. Indeed, with the essential condition allowing family to supplement subsidies with their own money, such a policy would initially increase school funding.

Biggest obstacle: The largest obstacle is inertia reinforced by economic illiteracy. The differences between political and market accountability are poorly understood, and the present system’s failure to teach basic economic principles helps it survive withering criticism.

Chester E. Finn Jr.

Finn is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and senior editor of Education Next.

Most necessary reform: There are four. First, let kids, by right, attend any public school in the state, regardless of where they live. Second, make sure that all the money follows the kid to the school he or she attends (including, wherever politics and constitutions allow, private schools). Third, treat charter schools right, meaning real deregulation and equal funding. Fourth, give parents timely, accurate, school-specific information by which they can make informed comparison-shopping decisions for their kids.

Biggest obstacle: There are two major barriers. One is the swarm of adult vested interests that benefit from the current arrangements and feel threatened by any serious change. They all have lobbyists; kids and parents don’t. The other, alas, is the vast population of complacent Americans, especially middle-class suburbanites, who have already exercised school choice of one sort or another and who now believe that their own kids’ schools are doing well enough. Usually they aren’t, but so weak are our external performance-audit mechanisms in K-12 education that few parents have ready access to information other than that issued by the superintendent’s office. The conceptual problem that connects them is the idea that the system’s employees areexperts who ought to be in charge of establishing the ground rules by which the system operates.

Jay P. Greene

Greene is the endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of the book Education Myths.

Most necessary reform: Expanded school choice brings greater competitive pressure to bear. Accountability testing attaches sanctions and rewards to school performance. And merit pay plans are increasing the connection between student learning and compensation for educators. Systematic evidence in favor of all these strategies suggests that the power of incentives can be mobilized effectively in education just as it is in other realms of life.

Biggest obstacle: When purchasing a service most people tend to think that they ought to be able to choose among providers. Most people tend to think that those service providers are likely to do a higher quality job at lower cost if they have to earn business from customers. Most people believe that it is both fair and efficient for compensation in those service industries to be linked to performance. Most people believe in the desirability of choice and competition and the power of incentives–except in education.

When it comes to education most people somehow believe that the rules should be different. We shouldn’t allow choice, they argue, because people might make bad choices. Schools don’t need competition to perform better, they argue, they just need better resources. And assessing performance to compensate educators is fraught with error, they fear. Besides, teachers don’t do it for the money; they do it because they love children.

These arguments for education being exceptional do not stand up to scrutiny. The government does not assign people to doctors, even though it is possible that people may choose poorly–and health care is an area where the cost of failure can be catastrophic. And while we understand that almost everyone who works with kids, from doctors to babysitters, loves children, we also recognize that financial rewards for excellent performance inspire better service.

John Taylor Gatto

Gatto quit teaching–after being named New York City Teacher of the Year three times and New York State Teacher of the Year once–with a Wall Street Journal op-ed denouncing government schooling. Gatto is author of several books, most recently An Underground History of American Education. He is currently working on a documentary about modern schooling.

Most necessary reform: Compulsory attendance laws absolutely have to be changed. It’s so difficult to actually educate oneself under these prison regulations. We had a time without compulsory attendance in American history, and we did quite well with a variety of schoolings. Then waves of immigration caused a revulsion effect among nativist Americans, and the idea of locking up the children of immigrants away from their parents and traditions and cultures seemed very appealing and “Americanizing.” (Of course, that’s a meaningless term. Given the meaning of this country, that would be un-Americanizing them.) As a 30-year schoolteacher in the classroom, I can say that nothing good happens from compulsion. Period. There aren’t any exceptions unless you look at your fellow human beings as inferiors or serfs or slaves.

The second thing would be to break the guaranteed revenue of any school, though clearly what we’re talking about here are the orthodox government schools. A guaranteed stream of revenue leads to all sorts of hanky-panky. I taught at a middle school in Manhattan, where every single teacher faked the attendance reports in order to get the revenue, which is some particular sum per head in attendance. In one school, Intermediate School 44 on West 77th Street in the middle of the gold coast of Manhattan, for a period in the early ’70s, there was a particular room set aside to fake the lunch application forms, because they were the key to Title I funds. That room was in the hands of the administration and a few teachers who were cronies of the administration. I don’t think they were particularly culpable; they were just following a general pattern. Most people don’t know that if you vote down a school budget–in New York it’s three times, but this is true all over–and finally a new budget can’t be passed, the old budget plus some percentage takes effect. The public has been stripped of the ability to discipline its schools.

What vouchers will produce, very quickly, is a much deeper and broader reach of official pedagogy into every home and every small secular or religious group that puts together schools. They won’t be allowed to run free: They will have to be monitored in their progress by standardized tests. And you can’t very easily get an education and do well on standardized tests. They don’t correlate with anything except what your score is going to be on the next standardized test you take.

Biggest obstacle: The biggest obstacle is that the correct questions aren’t asked. You won’t get anywhere if you accept that all the children should be drained out of the community and placed in the hands of so-called experts for a period of 12 years. The assumption isn’t just flawed, it’s rotten to the core. People don’t learn anything the way schools teach except reflexive obedience, so their behavior can be predicted by statistical tools.

This was built into the original design. The idea was that we had to convert a nation where 75 percent of the population had independent livelihoods–and this was their dream in childhood–in order to serve a highly concentrated corporate economy in which only a few people could call the shots for everyone else. You can’t have a mass-production corporate economy unless people consume around the clock with everything they have–their dreams are material dreams, so they can measure their success in life by how many toys they have or don’t have. We didn’t have a country like that, and anyone with the slightest familiarity with American history–which these days must be one person out of every 100,000–would see that we were well on our way to being the most dynamically inventive nation in the history of the planet. We had 90 percent of the patents in the world. That changed because in order to have westward expansion, we needed genuinely massive investment. There was only one place that investment could come from: Great Britain, which was an intensely class-based society, sent the senior sons of the people with the money over to make sure that our economy was slowly but systematically regulated the same way the British economy was regulated through class.

The whole school reform movement is a misdirection, so people talk about items that have little or no importance. Then they line up in some oppositional way, and after some spasm of a few years, everything is brought back in exactly the same form. But if you started with the premise that human genius is so widely distributed and so easy to access that it costs the taxpayers not a goddamn cent to do it, you would unthread the social and economic structure of this country.