Vouchers, Computers, Liberal Arts Defended?

Published March 14, 2004

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, books about school choice tended to be theoretical volumes that stressed the wonders that would result if the market worked its magic through school vouchers.

But after a small number of children in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and in Florida actually were able to use vouchers, school choice books tended to be analytical volumes showing that voucher-wielding students either did marginally better or marginally worse on standardized tests than students who attended their neighborhood schools.

Now that the Supreme Court has declared vouchers constitutional, it’s likely that school choice, at least for low-income students will become more common.

Hoover Institution senior fellow Herbert J. Walberg and Heartland Institute president Joseph L. Bast believe that school choice would help every public school student. In their book Education and Capitalism: How Overcoming Our Fear of Markets and Economics Can Improve America’s Schools (Hoover Institution, $15, 416 pages) they present an interesting reworking of familiar pro-choice themes.

Foes of school choice, Mr. Walberg and Mr. Bast argue, have an irrational fear that introducing competition into education would result in more harm than good.

Their fear is that with vouchers, schools would be controlled by amoral bean-counters who are more concerned with profits than with teaching right and wrong.

So the authors spend the middle third of their book teaching elementary lessons about economics. They show that capitalism does teach the importance of some virtues (hard work, thrift, fairness) and that it does not conflict with the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

These chapters–Economics 101–are overlong, and the authors’ arguments would be stronger if they were tightened and more focused on the opinions of school choice foes. But Mr. Walberg and Mr. Bast deserve credit for devising a new way to explore school choice issues.

Education and Capitalism will probably not change the minds of die-hard foes of school choice, such as school administrators and high-ranking members of the teachers’ unions.

But it will deepen the knowledge and strengthen the arguments of school choice supporters, and may persuade teachers and parents who haven’t made up their minds, particularly if they are conservatives who fear that tighter government regulations will burden private schools that accept government vouchers.

Mr. Walberg and Mr. Bast should be commended for re-thinking arguments for school choice that had become very stale.

Martin Morse Wooster writes a column on Education for the Washington, DC Sunday Times. This review appeared as part of his March 14, 2004 column.