Where School Reformers Go Wrong

Published June 1, 2001

John Merrifield’s The School Choice Wars (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2001) is my early favorite for Best School Reform Book of 2001. It is a courageous call for proponents of competition and parental choice to put behind them the frustrations and compromises of the 1990s and embrace once again the case for universal nondiscriminatory school choice.

Along the way, Merrifield criticizes a veritable Who’s Who of the school choice movement, including Alan Bonsteel, John Chubb and Terry Moe, John Coons, Denis Doyle, Chester Finn, John Hood, Nina Shokraii Rees, Herbert Walberg, and many lesser lights (including this writer and the managing editor of this newspaper). Our sins include mischaracterizing pilot voucher programs as genuine experiments, endorsing plans that fail to create the minimum requirements for a competitive market, accusing teachers rather than their union leaders of opposing reform (my mistake), and wasting time and resources on charter schools, heavily regulated pilot voucher programs, and private scholarships programs.

“Choice advocates talk about major reform, but nearly all of their proposals assume key elements of the status quo,” Merrifield writes. “They celebrate every new option for anyone, even when the proposals would delay or derail more meaningful reforms.”

Merrifield believes many of the current leaders of the movement for competition and choice in education have lost sight of the true goal–creating a competitive education industry–and are now as much a hindrance as a help to the reform cause. He sets forth the key conditions necessary for real competition in a series of seven “essential policies” (see sidebar).

Effective advocates of a competitive education industry, according to Merrifield, should critique rather than praise reform proposals that exclude some children, fail to provide true funding equity, and burden participating schools with heavy regulations. They should aggressively tackle the pervasive myth that public school failure is a problem only of urban school systems and not of suburbs as well. He calls for further efforts to divide the opposition by appealing to teachers and minorities, and documenting the futility of reforms that don’t foster genuine competition.

While every school reformer will find valuable information and advice in this book, not all will agree with Merrifield’s ideas on strategy. His criticism of incrementalist approaches–“implement a determinate outcome in stages if necessary, but do not seek it in stages”–seems to ignore the success of anti-market groups who pursue the incrementalist approach and the political realities facing reform advocates. Criticizing elected officials who advocate less than ideal school choice proposals, for example, seems to be a sure way to get disinvited from all but the most marginal school reform coalitions.

The claim that a free-market education system is most likely to be achieved in a single bound, rather than in small steps, is a familiar cliche coming from anti-voucher libertarians, but it is less commonly heard from voucher proponents such as Merrifield. The notion is weak regardless of who is making it.

Merrifield makes a few assertions in this area but provides little evidence. At one point he claims as an example of incrementalism the failure of many formerly communist nations to make successful transitions from socialism to capitalism. But the considered opinion of such experts as Richard Pipes and Mancur Olson is the opposite. They found such countries failed because no one thought to build institutions that support capitalist values before ambitious privatization programs were launched.

The lesson for school reformers, then, is to keep pushing for programs–no matter how modest–that introduce parents, educators, elected officials, and journalists to the possibility of competition and choice in education.

The experience gained and institutions created by even limited choice initiatives can help overcome the ignorance and fear of markets that Merrifield correctly observes is at the root of public opposition to market-based reforms. Even school reformers committed to an incrementalist approach will benefit from Merrifield’s instructions on the proper use of rhetoric and the importance of communicating the goal of creating a true competitive education industry.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and founding publisher of School Reform News. He can be contacted by email at [email protected].