Phi Beta Cons

Sol Stern and Vouchers

Over on the Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru has had a few comments about school vouchers lately. When he says that Sol Stern is strongest when making school-choice supporters “confront political realities,” he’s absolutely right. Getting the widespread, robust choice we need to get market forces working is a big challenge and will take some very heavy lifting.

Despite the formidable obstacles, we have had some success: In 1989 there were no charter schools, Milwaukee didn’t yet have its groundbreaking voucher program, and tax credits were few and tiny. Today, in contrast, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter-school laws and there are choice programs in 13 states and the nation’s capital. Moreover, while ripping choice, Stern pretty much ignores the huge political obstacles confronting the standards-based reforms he now champions.
As leading “instructivists” such as Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch have themselves made clear, the progressives they blame for the demise of the American curriculum got their way by consolidating government power over education, and they will almost certainly maintain their death grip because teachers and administrators — not the parents who long resisted progressive reforms — are by far the most powerful political forces in education. That’s why Stern can point to only one state, Massachusetts, as having had truly noteworthy success with standards-based reforms, and why right now even that success is in jeopardy.
So in light of political reality, which strategy seems more likely to achieve lasting, successful reform? Trying to oust forever the dictators in the current, special-interest-dominated system, or changing the system to let all schools — and curricula — compete?
I’d say the latter.

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