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Envisioning an Education

By Noah I. Dauber

Readers beware! Do not be confused by Professor Paul Peterson's latest piece in this month's Commentary magazine on school choice. School choice refers to the freedom of parents and students to choose either between competing public schools or between public and private schools. Peterson, Henry Lee Shattuck professor of Government, summarizes the recent literature on this recent development in education policy.

"School choice is an experiment we cannot afford to pass up," this self-described "cautious optimist" writes. Presumably, Peterson means that given the current state of education in America-public schools are in shambles and we are the worst educated of the industrial nations-it is time to try something new.

School choice is the focus of Peterson's optimism. It is school choice, he writes, that will lift the United States from the bottom of the barrel. It is our freedom that will save us. Or as Peterson puts it, "the discipline of the marketplace" will help public schools "address their most serious problems." Before turning to this somewhat mystical promise, we must note that Peterson is not in the business of saving the public schools. His concern is for the nation's students, and if the public schools should survive the process, so much the better.

This concern for the students first is the moral center of Peterson's argument. Put simply, Peterson is saying that students who cannot afford private school deserve an education of private school quality. This is a great thing to say, and it should be said louder, clearer and more frequently.

Following through with Peterson's program would certainly shake things up. School choice would bring heat to bear on the public schools and sharpen our understanding of the injustices of the current system. Unfortunately, we already know that the educational system is on the rocks.

We need to address public schools' "most serious problems." Peterson tells us that the "discipline of the marketplace" will accomplish this, or at the very least, get things moving towards this end. But how will this happen? Why should we believe that the invisible hand is good at providing quality in education? Like schoolchildren, we are told to follow a simple analogy: through competition, the marketplace brings out excellence in consumer goods, therefore competition will do the same for schools.

As any of us who had Russian classmates in elementary or high school can attest to, excellence in education does not have much to do with free markets. We are not naive enough to believe that the market can or will solve all of our problems.

Moreover, the market-in the form of charter schools-has already proven itself to be ill-suited to the needs of education. Charter schools, an innovation imported from England several years ago, encourages individuals with a plan for an experimental school to apply for funding directly from the state without prior approval from local officials. The New Republic has chronicled the disaster of the charter schools over the past year or so. We have read of an Afrocentric high school in Washington, D.C. that threw a white journalist out of the school, hurling epithets. Elsewhere, a charter school is established to the history of Bayonne, New Jersey. Even Peterson admits that charter schools need to be regulated. So much for the discipline of the marketplace!

The lesson of the charter schools is that the marketplace, left to its own devices, tends towards entrepreneurial gimmickry. Charter schools are the slinkies and hoola hoops of the educational system. Here one is devoted to the study of the environment, there one is styled after a European academy. If charter schools do not lead to further balkanization of the nation, the New Republic's claim, it will certainly result in a generation of niche-educated boutiquey kids.

The problem with school choice is that it fails to explain how public schools will get better. It is the philosophy of "where there is a will, there is a way," without describing the way. It is embarrassed by the charter schools and vague in its promises. We are better off taking the concrete steps necessary to a better educational system. If we want to move up the ranks of the industrial nations in this regard, we cannot rest on our laurels and expect the invisible hand to do our dirty work.

If we agree that poor students deserve private school-quality education, we should work to make the public schools equal to the private schools. Like the very best private schools in this country and many of the academies in other countries, we should demand that our public school teachers be well-versed in their subjects. More, if not all, public school teachers should have advanced degrees. We might also consider some of the other substantive proposals floating around, such as national exams and standardized curricula. For when all the talk has settled down, and the pundits have gone to bed, these are the experiments that we cannot afford to pass up.

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