Politics & Policy

The Moynihan Challenge

Back up the hot air, win a steak dinner.

The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) related an insightful anecdote in his book Miles to Go. Senator Moynihan asked Laura D’Andrea Tyson of the Clinton Administration for two supportive studies justifying the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a favored program.

Moynihan received two studies the following day, but after reading them, noted that both studies actually concluded similar programs had failed to produce any positive results. In response, Moynihan wrote the following in a letter to Tyson:

In the last six months I have been repeatedly impressed by the number of members of the Clinton administration who have assured me with great vigor that something or other is known in an area of social policy which, to the best of my understanding, is not known at all. This seems to me perilous. It is quite possible to live with uncertainty, with the possibility, even the likelihood that one is wrong. But beware of certainty where none exists. Ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance.

Pronouncements by school-choice opponents are rife with such ideological certainty. After columnist Jon Talton of the Arizona Republic, for example, used a Sunday column to describe a school-choice program that passed the Arizona legislature with bipartisan support as “right-wing utopianism,” I publicly posed my own Moynihan challenge.

If Mr. Talton could provide two random assignment control-group studies of the attitudes of parents who have actually used a private school-choice program showing anything less than substantial improvement in satisfaction with their child’s school, I offered to buy him a steak dinner. I noted I could produce a large number of studies demonstrating the opposite, but just two would do the trick for Mr. Talton.

As an alternative, I invited Mr. Talton to produce two control-group studies of any of the nation’s school-choice programs that show students learn significantly less after choosing to go to school elsewhere. Again, I can produce a large number of studies from scholars at Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown concluding students learn significantly more in school-choice programs, but a mere two studies showing the opposite would win the bet for Mr. Talton.

“Mr. Talton has the opportunity to eat steak while making me eat crow,” I wrote. Mysteriously, Mr. Talton never tried to collect.

When Mr. Talton failed to produce, I extended the same offer to everyone in Arizona: Produce two random assignment studies showing bad results from school choice, and win a steak dinner. I suggested calling the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, or the National School Board Association. No one in Arizona made any serious effort to collect.

Or maybe they went rummaging through the available random assignment control-group studies and found the same thing I did: the results are extremely positive and never negative.

Random assignment control-group studies, the gold standard of social science research, allow us to stop armchair theorizing. When done properly, these studies allow researchers to isolate the impact of a particular program by observing two groups that are effectively identical.

School-choice programs have been the subject of a large number of random assignment studies. The consistent conclusion of such evaluations on school-choice programs is that parents are much more satisfied with the school their child attends, and students demonstrate varying degrees of academic gains. None of these studies shows any academic harm to students or a decline in parental satisfaction.

For example, a 1998 Harvard study found school-choice parents “very satisfied.” Another control-group study led by a Georgetown scholar found that 46 percent of the private-school parents participating in a privately financed school-voucher program gave their school an “A” compared with just 15 percent of the control-group parents.

Control-group studies by Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown researchers trump the substance-free ad hominem attacks offered by school-choice opponents. Moynihan warned that “ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance,” and groundless attacks by school-choice opponents certainly qualify.

I am, however, willing to give the school-choice skeptics one last chance to back up their claims.

The first person in the nation who can send me two random assignment school-choice studies showing significant declines in either academic performance or parental satisfaction will win a steak dinner. I’ll even throw in drinks and dessert–the whole nine yards. You have one month to send the studies to Mladner@goldwaterinstitute.org. Feel free to forward this to your anti-school-choice friends and invite them to play. The more the merrier.

If opponents of school choice can offer no proof to back their assertions, they deserve neither my steak nor anyone’s confidence, leaving everyone to wonder: where’s the beef?

Matthew Ladner is director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice and a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

Matthew Ladner is a senior research strategist at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the executive editor of RedefinED.

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