Manhattan, Harvard Sponsor School Choice Debate

Published June 1, 2000

On March 9-10, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) jointly sponsored a “Conference on Charter Schools, Vouchers, and Public Education” at the Taubman Center in the University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

As part of the Conference, Professor Paul Peterson, PEPG director, arranged for a debate on the resolution, “School choice will ruin American education.”

Speaking for the resolution were:

Bruce Fuller, professor of education, University of California-Berkeley

Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers

Speaking against the resolution were:

Chester “Checker” Finn Jr., John M. Olin Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

Howard Fuller, former Superintendent of Schools in Milwaukee, and distinguished professor of education at Marquette University

Since the debate took approximately an hour, the following is, of necessity, an abbreviated and edited account.


Bruce Fuller

Americans have long expressed a rather tortured ambivalence for school choice since the 1950s. My own ambivalence about the promise and the reality of choice is rooted in a historical view of how choice has, and most importantly has not, altered the public schools.

Our research group at Berkeley released a report in the fall showing that now about a quarter of all children no longer attend their neighborhood school. Ten percent of this growing share of pro-choice parents are selecting private schools and about 15 percent are parents who have selected public school options: magnet schools, cross-town transfers, and charter schools. We actually know very little about how these 30 or 40 years of history have affected public schools.

I want to put forward five arguments as to why I think school choice is not going to uniquely improve urban schools. The first three things deal with whether market incentives really lead to more effective forms of schooling and teaching. That is, choice experiments–voucher experiments, specifically–aren’t showing important and significant effects. They are showing effects, but what is this experiment teaching us about effective schools?

It’s certainly not necessarily energizing organizational changes, neither in private nor public schools. It’s simply allowing children to sort into existing parochial schools. Now, it may work if in fact the technologies and organizational features found in parochial schools can be replicated in public schools. But charter schools, in some ways, are a story about socialization–raising children according to certain values, from Afrocentric traditions, to a Mormon upbringing, to progressive, Deweyian forms of pedagogy and learning. We have a lot more work to do to really know whether kids’ achievement is rising in charter schools, and whether pedagogical innovations are really present to explain alleged gains in achievement.

Second, I think choice will have a limited effect overall because it’s not clear to me that these alternative schools are more accountable to public communities than are public schools. The idea was that if we could go to a market-oriented system, then there would be direct–parent to school–forms of accountability. But there are several market failures becoming more apparent.

We also have some advocates arguing that voucher schools and charter schools shouldn’t be a part of state assessment programs. In fact, the “Other Fuller” [i.e., Howard] has made an argument that in Milwaukee we should be very careful about how we evaluate those schools.

Third, there’s much more public support for centralized state action in the school reform area than there is for pro-choice reforms. Governors, from Bush in Texas, Rowland in Connecticut, to Davis in California, are all backing increasingly centralized forms of accountability.

Fourth, it’s difficult to see how voucher experiments could ever go to scale. For example, with teacher shortages, as vouchers or charters go up to scale, how could they attract new teachers when private schools already are paying about a third less than public schools?

And, fifth, my basic worry, from a political economy standpoint, is that school choice advocates tend to solely blame the bureaucratic structure of schooling for low achievement, and this distracts us from a deeper discussion of family poverty. The average black second grader in America is already one year behind in reading. Now this has little to do with the governance of public schools. It has a lot to do with family poverty; it has a lot to do with unequal access to preschool in America, which, parenthetically, is a wide-open market system.

The underlying paradox here is that choice advocates promise more equalized opportunities through market dynamics, all the while eating away at the state’s legitimacy and its long-term capacity to attack the corrosive effects of family poverty.

Checker Finn

Let’s start by talking about what we mean by “public education.” Do we mean the education of the public, the education of all the children of the next generation? Because, if that’s what we mean, we go in one direction, and our side accepts the premise that education is in considerable part a public good, and that society has an obligation to ensure that the next generation receives a good education.

But if by “public education,” we mean a network of government-operated institutions called “public schools,” and a near-monopoly by those institutions of the education of the young, we go in a very different direction, for we do not accept that the education of the young can only be provided, or is best provided, in government-run institutions.

Let us therefore distinguish sharply between educating the public and today’s array of government-operated public schools. It’s like distinguishing between caring for the health of the public as opposed to a network of municipal hospitals.

Government-operated public schools come to us neither from Madison nor from Moses, which is to say you will encounter them neither in the Constitution nor in the Ten Commandments. They are a public policy invention of the mid-nineteenth century.

Educating the next generation is a very different matter. It goes back well before Moses. Indeed, I think educating the next generation is encoded in our societal DNA. I’m not aware of any society or culture, primitive or modern, that does not take seriously the obligation to train or prepare or educate its next generation for entering into adult life.

The question is, “What is the best way to get it done?” What should concern us is not the preservation of institutions, or institutional forms, but the education of the young. And if one set of institutional forms turns out to be dysfunctional, we should devise new ones.

There are, of course, some domains in which government subsidizes some of the institutions, and you have the option of using the government-subsidized ones if you want to. There’s nothing wrong with the government providing arrangements that you have an option of utilizing. But it is a very, very different thing to take for granted that a government-delivered monopoly over a set of institutions is the normal and best way of doing things.

So we propose the re-definition of public education to refer to the education of the public by whatever means, rather than the maintenance of a particular network of government-run institutions. And we propose the re-definition of a public school, so that it is no longer a school operated by the government, but is rather a school that satisfies three and only three criteria: that it is open to all who wish to attend it, that it is paid for by tax dollars and does not oblige people to pay their own money, and that it is accountable for its results to some duly constituted public authority which can close it down if it fails to do a good job or otherwise betrays the public trust.

Under that definition, I submit that school choice, far from being the ruination of American education, will turn out to be the renewal of American public education, and will turn out to be a huge boon to millions of youngsters who are ill-served by the present arrangement.

Tom Mooney

I’m going to switch sides for the first sentence, because obviously I don’t believe that choice will destroy education. I believe privatization will destroy education in America if the objective is to educate all students or the vast majority of students to a relatively high standard. I submit that that is really what this debate is about. It is not about choice; it is about privatization.

I’ve spent the last 20 years being a union leader in an urban public school situation. I live in that city and my children have gone to the magnet schools in that public system. I’m a fierce defender of public school choice. I spent a lot of my early career as a union leader trying to bring about more equity in resources for the neighborhood schools as they were investing so heavily in the magnet schools.

What did these magnet schools do? They kept a chunk of the middle class in the public schools. I think that’s a pretty common motive, whether it’s stated or not, and they certainly created pockets of excellence. In fact, Cincinnati has one of the largest-scale and longest-running experiments in school choice in the country, with about a third of our students enrolled in them. This has been going on for about 25 years and so we ought to know something about the effects of choice. But if you went to visit Cincinnati, I don’t believe you would find a single soul in a competent state who would argue that competition has improved the neighborhood schools, where the other two-thirds of the children go.

It has drained them of talent, energy, and parental energy, and made the problems there more intractable and difficult to raise achievement. But the theory is supposed to be that these choice schools will force the public schools to improve. I’ll tell you, from where I’ve stood on the ground for the last 25 years, the exact opposite would appear to be the case. So privatization really is the debate, not choice.

Let’s then look at the two major forms of privatization that we’re experiencing, one being vouchers and the other being charter schools. In terms of publicly funded vouchers, we have two major experiments in Milwaukee and Cleveland, where, it seems to me, the verdict is close to being in.

It’s a little early for Cleveland, but what we see from the outside study by Indiana University is: No results. On the other hand, we looked at lots of scandals. In Milwaukee, we have the official outside evaluator, Witte, who tells us, after five years, that there are no meaningful results that aren’t explained by other factors. We know that some people will twist and torture those numbers but I just don’t know how you look at those numbers and say there are meaningful results because of the intervention of vouchers.

In the case of charters, the story is much more complicated. It is primarily now chains of for-profit, privately operated schools very insulated from public accountability. The only thing public about them is the money. And the results, of course, stink. Is that a surprise? Of course not. Why would they do well? They have mostly untested operators, less experienced and qualified teachers than the public schools, they mostly don’t have coherent curriculum models. And then again there are the scandals. So what really is the point unless it’s an ideological commitment to privatization?

We ought to do the things that work and invest in those, rather than playing around with children for the sake of ideological wars.

Howard Fuller

I come to you today from the city of Milwaukee, where we have charter schools, contract schools, partnership schools, a low-income voucher program, and innovative efforts in our existing public school system. We are where we are today because of a continuous struggle to ensure that our poorest children, most of whom are black and brown, are given the chance to get a quality education. I’m here because I believe in all of my heart and soul that poor parents ought to have the capacity to choose the school that they believe is best for their children.

I contend that school choice must be seen in the framework of four critical concepts of the American ideal: the mission of education itself, freedom, democracy, and power.

In this country, we contend that our freedom is the result of our democracy. But in Milwaukee and many other areas of this country, poor African-American children are being precluded from being effective participants in the democracy because we are failing to educate them. Too many of our poorest children are being forced to stay in schools that do not work for them and, frankly, didn’t work for their parents. They lack the power to influence the educational institutions that continue not to serve them well.

In America, you must have power if you are interested in changing the decisions and the practices and the policies and the institutions that affect your life.

Now let me return to our debate resolution: “Resolved: that school choice will ruin American education.” The very way the resolution is phrased sets up a false premise, as if school choice were some type of new, untested practice in America. But school choice is neither new nor untested. The only thing that’s different today is that we’re suggesting that poor parents ought to have the same options that all of us in here with money have for our own children.

I find it intriguing that some public school teachers who would never put their own children in the schools they teach in will insist that poor parents keep their children in these very schools. Why? If the school is not good enough for their children, why is it good enough for anybody’s children?

Framing this debate in hypothetical terms shifts attention from the central issue–power. The question is, will poor parents of color have the same power to choose an educational environment for their children that many school choice critics have for theirs? Because every one of us in here who’s honest knows that if you’ve got money, you don’t care what the conference at Harvard said, even if it’s at the JFK School of Government. It doesn’t matter, because you’re going to take care of your children because you have the capacity to do so.

What I’m saying to you in very clear terms is, I want poor parents to have the power to choose schools, public or private, non-sectarian or religious, wherever they think that their children will succeed. I would argue that putting the power in the hands of families, who have little or no control over resources that influence the policies in our schools, will give them hope for the future.


Bruce Fuller

I agree with Howard that choice has been around for a long time. One in four children in America no longer attends their neighborhood school, and magnet schools have been around since the early ’70s.

Now, of course, the obvious argument is “That’s constrained choice. That doesn’t allow children to attend parochial or private schools which may be more effective.” But then we’re back to the issue of “Can we expand parochial schools?” Or “Can we somehow capture the magic of parochial schools and give it to other schools?”

The other point that Checker opened up is this question about the modern state and modern schooling. That is, the modern school in a sense is a control mechanism, but it’s one that’s part of the modern state as a way to pull a nation together and to advance common symbols. For example, in California, we have a lot of people saying all schools should teach in English. We want all teachers to teach math in very similar ways now in California. We want common moral codes in schools. And now we want common curriculum models in schools, and we’ve elected governors who’ve promised to deliver common curriculum models.

I do agree on one point, and that is: We can socialize the cost of certain public enterprises. We can have a progressive tax structure and mixed markets of providers. However, a cautionary tale here: We have this in pre-schooling and we have it in higher education. Yet if you look at who benefits–who comes to Harvard vs. who comes to Massachusetts Community College–we haven’t quite addressed the equity issue, even though we’ve had a mixed provision of providers.

Checker Finn

I think we won. Bruce and Tom both said they agreed that choice is a good thing, that they are for it. Then they began to quibble about what forms it may take, and what conditions it will operate under, and how much institutional diversity is actually going to be realized. They also pointed out that there’s a lot of evidence that’s either not yet been gathered or not yet been analyzed, and I think I agree with that.

Which leads me to lay on the table, and on them, a proposition, namely that they stop opposing experiments in school choice from which we might learn a great deal more. That they and their organizations–in Tom’s case, a large, powerful organization–stop opposing experiments with different sorts of school choice under different circumstances in different places by which we might get to the bottom of some of the remaining empirical questions in this area.

If their issues are empirical, then let them join in a quest to ramp up the amount of empirical investigation of different kinds of school choice that we have going on in this country. All sorts of different kinds of school choice–public, private, privatized, virtual, home, voucher, charter, you name it. Let’s have it rigorously evaluated by everybody in sight. Let’s find out.

But I submit to you that they, or at least Tom’s organization, won’t agree to that. Because empirical evidence in this area alarms them. They are alarmed by the possibility that it might turn out to be positive for school choice, and therefore they don’t want any more experiments. And so they go around the country persuading legislatures and school committees not to do things that might yield more information in this area.

Bruce said that there is greater public support for centralized reforms than for decentralized reforms. My contention is that there’s actually quite a lot of public support for both and that they are compatible, indeed that they complement and strengthen one another.

And, responding to Tom, most charter schools are run by non-profits, not by national corporate operators.

Tom Mooney

Anybody who’s been involved in public education for the last few decades knows we’ve had far too many experiments. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t, and we owe it ethically to our profession and to our clients and to the taxpayers to do what we know works, not to randomly experiment.

Mr. Finn also said with his original remarks that public schools, as a publicly operated institution, are not the Ten Commandments or the Declaration of Independence. It’s true you won’t encounter them there, but you will encounter them in nearly all other developed countries, as one of the key underpinnings of a free market democracy.

Why quibble about what forms of choice? Because when it comes to choice in a privatized environment, the choice is really more of a one-way street. That is, the private schools get to choose whether they take the child. You could give out $10,000 vouchers in Cincinnati, and it doesn’t mean that Summit Country Day or Xavier High School or Seven Hills is going to take the children that we are struggling to educate in many of the public schools.

Also, the taxpayers don’t get a choice. They voted to send their property tax dollars to their public school board and now it’s being diverted by action of the state legislature to privately operated, self-appointed boards running charter schools. In a democracy, with public funding, shouldn’t the public have a voice and a choice in how the education is delivered?

I would agree with something that Dr. Fuller said: We should not tolerate schools that we wouldn’t send our own children to. We haven’t. We’re trying very hard to change that. By the way, two-thirds of my members–which is about the right proportion in the population as a whole in my area–do send their children exclusively to public schools. Nine percent more have children in both public and private schools.

Howard Fuller

The fact that two-thirds do means that one-third don’t. Therefore, that is a significant point.

I also want to make it clear that in Milwaukee at least, we struggled for school choice because of the inability or the unwillingness of the school district to address the educational needs of poor African-American children. This is not for us an ideological issue.

Bruce mentioned about how I wanted a different kind of accountability. Let me be clear: The unions have said that their goal is to destroy the program in Milwaukee and that the way to destroy it is to call for “accountability,” or more regulation. They said specifically that their goal is to regulate the schools so that private schools will pull out.

Also, we’re operating under a judge’s decision that said that this program is constitutional in Wisconsin because the accountability measures in the law plus parent choice are enough to guarantee that the public’s interest is being met. Furthermore, what makes the program legal is the lack of government entanglement. So the unions are using the cover of “accountability” to create more government entanglement so they can take us to court and say, “Now this program is illegal because you have too much government entanglement.”

Tom talked about the research in Milwaukee and accused us of being torturous, but in reality what he did was much more torturous. He failed to tell you that Peterson and Greene did in fact find significant improvements in math and reading. He also failed to tell you that Cecilia Rouse said that she found significant improvements in math. He forgot to tell you that a week ago, John Witte, whom he touted, was on the radio explaining why he supported the Milwaukee choice program. He said he supported it because it was targeted to low-income parents. He also said that religious schools have to be in the program to create enough of a supply.