Phi Beta Cons

Re: Finn’s Memoir

Andrew J. Coulson of the Cato Institute writes, in response to my post on Checker Finn’s recent memoir, that the disappointing results of school choice programs cannot be blamed on the failure of the market-based approach to education in general because “U.S. charter schools and voucher programs deviate from free markets in crucial ways, and so tell us very little about the merits of real market reform.”
Well, of course! And necessarily so. A government-mandated and -funded right to public education for every child up to age 16 – regardless of ability, disability, behavior, background, knowledge of English, previous education history, year after year, decade after decade, some 50 million children at at time – could never be completely open to a fully free market. The only way that could happen would be to get rid of mandated and taxpayer-supported public education altogether. And still the results would not be pretty, because the market cannot ensure quality.
Survival-of-the-fittest type competition without standards will not necessarily produce good results. I recently got cable television, and while there is some good on it, a lot of it is unbelievably bad and appallingly degraded and perverse. I have to say that what is on PBS may be left-oriented, but is generally of better quality and not routinely corrosive.
The good private schools did not come about through competition, but through people who had a vision of true education and upheld it against all the forces of degradation. I simply don’t have the faith in unfettered markets that Mr. Coulson has. Without some force upholding standards, free markets will go to the lowest common denominator. (We already have charter schools dedicated to Aztec identity and social justice and such.)
Mr. Coulson attributes my remarks to a disappointed neoconservative outlook. Well, I was trying to point to what I think has been the mistake of neoconservatism in recent years – putting procedure over substance, both in spreading democracy without regard to cultural foundations (and by the by also promoting a concept of America as completely without cultural formation and consisting only of universal ideas applicable to all humanity everywhere right now), and in promoting choice in education without advancing substantive curricula and pedagogy.

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