In an effort to find common political ground on the vexing issue of public school reform, The Nation passes on to its readers a set of provocative proposals from Ron K. Unz. A conservative Republican who ran in the 1994 primary against California Governor Pete Wilson, Unz campaigned strongly against that year’s anti-immigrant Prop 187. Last year he sponsored the controversial Prop 227, which abolished bilingual education in California, and recently he wrote a new initiative aimed at moderate campaign finance reform. Now he’s calling for a negotiated right/left truce on education, one in which both sides would have to relinquish parts of their historic agendas. We hope this editorial, which reflects Unz’s personal views, will generate a healthy and vigorous debate.
According to many polls, education reform tops voter concerns. Our public schools do have serious problems, and improving them should be a bipartisan effort. Unfortunately, among conservatives “educational reform” has lately become almost a synonym for “school choice,” whether through vouchers, charter schools or some other variation. And a significant cohort of liberals and reform Democrats is beginning to move toward such ideas.
Partly, this consideration of vouchers may result from the deep pessimism of reformers: If years of effort have failed to improve public education substantially, perhaps the task is simply impossible, and the system should be “blown up” or at least have enough holes knocked in it to allow frustrated parents to flee with their children to private or charter schools. Vouchers are popular among the right because they have strong ideological appeal to disparate but powerful elements of the conservative movement, ranging from libertarians (who often seem to worship the free market and competition as being axiomatically beneficial in any policy area) to religious conservatives (who eagerly seek public funding for their religious and parochial schools). But an objective examination of “school choice” raises serious doubts about the entire concept.
Our worldwide educational rivals almost universally rely upon the sort of government school system that is allegedly responsible for our own educational failings. In fact, public education in most other countries is far more centralized and government controlled, with less local flexibility and free choice than our own. If traditional government schools seem to work well everywhere else, perhaps they can be made to work here; on the other hand, vouchers would constitute a radical leap into the unknown.
Moreover, though voucher advocates argue that competition would inevitably lead to the triumph of good schools over bad because of the “magic of the marketplace,” this seems far from obvious. The success or failure of a given public school program is very difficult to quantify objectively, and most working parents cannot devote endless time to researching the matter.
In fact, it is easy to imagine that the schools that would win the competitive struggle for parental dollars would be those that invested most heavily in advertising and public relations and least heavily in academic content, as is often the case in the vaunted private sector. The actual physical content of most colas or sneakers is almost indistinguishable, but the Coke and Nike brands reign supreme because of massive spending on public image-making and celebrity endorsements. Although fine for the soft drink industry, this is not a desirable model for our public education system under market competition.