Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

School Choice, Ramesh Ponnuru & Me


I appreciate the fact that, unlike most of my other critics, Ramesh Ponnuru actually seems to have read my City Journal article carefully and understands that I was not in any way abandoning the moral argument for offering vouchers to disadvantaged kids stuck in lousy inner-city school districts. Still, let me respond to some of the points he raised in his recent post. Perhaps I could convince him to be more pro than contra Stern.

First, I think Ponnuru shouldn’t accept Jay Greene’s argument that the reason the ed schools are so uniformly awful (despite having all the characteristics of a market system) is that they are responding to the “preferences of our monopolistic public school system.” Neither Greene nor Ponnuru produce any facts to back up that claim. That’s because the facts all point in exactly the opposite direction — that is, ed schools tend to maintain their ideological loyalty to progressive education doctrines (such as whole-language instruction and social-justice teaching) even when the “monopoly” public schools finally seem to want something more sensible. For example, California’s public-education authorities shifted back to phonics in the mid 90s, but the state’s ed schools continued to ignore phonics in their elementary-education courses. Similarly, Massachusetts’s curriculum and pedagogical reforms of the past two decades have been opposed by the ed schools, and with the election of Governor Deval Patrick they are now working to overthrow the reforms. Ideas matter in education as in all other areas of our public life. There is an ideological hegemony in the ed schools that will not be overcome by some miraculous market transformation. I would think that conservatives understand the power of bad ideas and the need to combat the ed schools’ bad instructional ideas with better ideas.

Second, Ponnuru ignores the empirical reality of the Catholic schools’ crisis and the impact this recent development has on any realistic hopes for expansion of voucher programs. In Washington, D.C., Catholic schools are closing despite enrolling students with fairly generous tuition vouchers. I bemoan this. I pray that this seemingly inexorable decline of inner-city Catholic schools might be reversed. But it seems to me that any realistic school-reform plan must take the new demographic and financial realities in the Catholic sector into account. Nor do I think that there is any warrant for Ponnuru’s belief that (absent enough Catholic schools) inner-city voucher plans will still likely stimulate the startup of a significant number of new private schools. I concede that he might be right on this and I might be wrong. But during the many years it might take to decide this question, shouldn’t conservatives and school-choice reformers be joining the fight to challenge the progressive education hegemony in the public schools that presently educate 50 million American children? After all, most of those children will be future voters. Do we really want to abandon them to the ideologies of Paolo Freire, Jonathan Kozol, and Bill Ayers while we wait for market utopia?


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