Stern's Apostasy on Vouchers

Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern, a stalwart critic of progressive education and indefatigable supporter of school choice, argues that voucher programs haven't been the "panacea" he had hoped, and suggests that advocates of market forces in education need to look for a "plan B." According to a story in today's New York Sun, Stern, a veteran of the New Left and former editor at the radical magazine Ramparts, documents "his disillusionment with school vouchers, taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools," in an article for City Journal:

In an article published in the latest edition of City Journal, Mr. Stern, a Manhattan Institute fellow, portrays the libertarian approach that once inspired him as a failed experiment, and urges those who agree with him to search for a "Plan B."

The idea that what public schools need is not more money but more competition has become a major school of thought in education circles - "the dominant challenge in terms of big politics of school reform," a professor of education and political science at Columbia University's Teachers College, Jeffrey Henig, said.

Mr. Stern's article appears to be the latest in a series of indications that its dominance is flagging.

"There's a growing consensus that a market approach alone is not enough," the president of the Albany-based Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, Tom Carroll, said. He added: "There's a need for a moment of reflection."

The president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, D.C., Chester Finn, who has been a vocal advocate of school vouchers and charter schools, said yesterday in an e-mail message that he has "growing sympathy" with Mr. Stern's skepticism. Mr. Finn stoked debate himself recently by declaring that one factor hurting charter schools in Ohio is "too much trust in market forces." He said his partial reversal is the subject of a memoir, "Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik," which will be released this year. Mr. Stern's argument begins with his disillusionment with school vouchers, taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

Stern's article isn't available on line, though the (redesigned) City Journal website can be found here.

Nick Gillespie on the father of modern school reform, the late Milton Friedman, here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • tarran||

    I am aghast that anyone can confuse the market socialism of school vouchers with libertarianism.

    As Mises and Rothbard also pointed out, without private property rights, economic calculation becomes a comedy of errors. Two likely scenarios would emerge in the wake of a new voucher program. First, the new money flooding into the private school market would undoubtedly drive up tuition prices, thus rendering many families still unable to send their children to the school of their choice. The tuition hikes would also fuel the rage of politicians who would most likely accused private schools of "price gouging," making them more susceptible to future unwanted and unwise regulation.

    Second, the injection of new education money would lead to a number of small "education startups," some of which would be legitimate, but many others being "fly-by-night" operations. Like the malinvestment that strikes capital markets when government creates new credit out of the air, we would quickly see a new waste of funds into unwieldy educational operations that otherwise would never have opened their doors. It would not take long for voucher opponents to seize upon this unfortunate situation and convince political authorities to crack down on all private schools.

  • shecky||

    Selling vouchers as a panacea to "fix" schools or education, etc, seems something of a gamble from the start. I think the best argument for voucher programs is philosophical, which also makes it least likely.

  • ||

    yeah, it's not a big surprise that with the "public-private partnership" created by vouchers, we still have all the problems of the public schools and few of the benefits of private schools.

    The idea that the government is doing you a favor by allowing you to spend a limited amount of your own money in the way you want is silly on its face.

  • ||

    The arguement for vouchers isn't that "We can improve education for everyone", but "I can improve education for my kids".

    Vouchers will help poor people trapped in self-destructing inner city communities to escape that system. But it won't help inner city communities from self destructing.

    Education is the Titanic, vouchers are the lifeboats, and the people against vouchers are the people telling us that the Titanic isn't really sinking.

  • ||

    We can fiddle with the system and tweak it all day long. If a kid has parents who give a damn and are active in his/her life, that kid will generally do OK regardless of the school. Kids whose parents couldn't give a crap or don't spend much time with them will do worse, regardless of how many super-awesome private schools they go to.

  • ||

    The idea that people who choose to work in urban public schools are going to be effectively motivated to change their behavior through market incentives always had a glaring hole right in the middle.

  • ||

    I mostly agree with Rex Rhino, but I would expand on that thought.

    Tom Carroll said "There's a growing consensus that a market approach alone is not enough." The correct follow-up to this statement is to ask "not enough for what?"

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    The idea that people who choose to work in urban public schools are going to be effectively motivated to change their behavior through market incentives always had a glaring hole right in the middle.

    San Francisco's market implementation of district wide open enrollment has been wildly successful. No hole in the middle.

  • highnumber||

    joe,
    Grades 6-8?

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    ooops, forgot the link to the open enrollment piece

    San Francisco

  • Russ 2000||

    TWC,

    San Francisco's market implementation of district wide open enrollment has been wildly successful. No hole in the middle.

    What happens when a school has more people applying than the school has room for? Does the administration of the school open a second facility? Does the price go up?

  • ||

    Joe,
    You seem to be conflating market incentives with donuts.

    Also, was there a huge switch over to vouchers that occurred while I was not looking? It seems like it is a bit premature to say that it wouldn't work. There is not a whole lot of data.

  • ||

    Also, was there a huge switch over to vouchers that occurred while I was not looking? It seems like it is a bit premature to say that it wouldn't work. There is not a whole lot of data.

    Here's some data:

    Government gets involved in X, X begins to stop working efficiently, then government gets more involved in order to "fix" the problem with X that it created.

    Now substitute "everything" for X.

  • NP||

    Much as I agree that they're a superior alternative to the current government monopoly on education, I've had some reservations about the efficiency of school vouchers and it looks like they're indeed not as efficient as advertised. Remember that the recently proposed Utah vouchers would've come with the caveat that private schools administer a nationally recognized exam. Of course, the national education system controls the exam and thereby the curriculum, so the curriculum of Utah's private schools wouldn't have been very different from that of the public schools. This is just one limitation of the school voucher system that its proponents are gonna have to address if they really want it to succeed.

  • tarran||

    Education is the Titanic, vouchers are the lifeboats deckchairs, and the people against vouchers are the people telling us that the Titanic isn't really sinking rearranging the deckchairs isn't going to stop the ship from sinking.



    Fixed it for you...

  • Neu Mejican||

    tarran scores a win.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Vouchers certainly have been a mixed bag. Charter schools have clearly been better, but it isn't like we have hundreds of school districts that implemented vouchers without success. Vouchers have been available only to a limited number of students in a very few cities and the dollar figures are small in comparison to per-student funding figures.

    I have two kids in public school. California is spending (on average) 11 grand per kid to educate them. That is 22 grand a year.

    What are they doing with the money?

    Overall spending per class room (20 kids): 222,000.00

    Teacher's salary and benefits: 80 grand

    That leaves 142 grand per classroom of 20 kids left over after paying the teacher.

    In my son's 6th grade class there are 32 kids, which means close to 275 grand (per classroom, per year) left after paying the teacher.

    Now, what if my kids could take the entire 11 grand the state spends on their education to any school they wanted to attend?

    You don't think there'd be a little competition to attract students? Even in public schools?

  • Neu Mejican||

    Open enrollment does not = vouchers.

    All education problems are local.
    All education solutions are local.

  • Paul||

    him to search for a "Plan B."

    The Bush Administration will never fund "Plan B."

    I'm here all week.

  • R C Dean||

    The idea that people who choose to work in urban public schools are going to be effectively motivated to change their behavior through market incentives always had a glaring hole right in the middle.

    To the extent vouchers are supposed to have a second-order effect of improving state schools:

    I don't think vouchers are supposed to affect the behavior of teachers directly. I think their target is more the administrators.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    NM, of course open enrollment isn't vouchers. What is it?

    Competition.

    Joe said:

    The idea that people who choose to work in urban public schools are going to be effectively motivated to change their behavior through market incentives always had a glaring hole right in the middle.



    TWC said, not true, people who choose to work in urban public schools, namely San Francisco, have been effectively motivated to change their behavior through market incentives.

    The market incentive was OPEN ENROLLMENT.

  • ||

    Open Enrollment is not a market incentive.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Open Enrollment is not a market incentive.

    No, open enrollment is not a free market incentive. However, it is most certainly a market incentive. The market is created when you stop arbitrarily assigning students to an elementary school based on neighborhood and allow them a degree of choice.

    Semantics aside, the glaring hole isn't quite as large as you assumed.

  • shecky||

    Open enrollment is probably a more realistic, if modest, proposition. While it may come up short according to libertarian standards, it does seem a significant improvement for many folks.

    FWIW, open enrollment seems pretty much de facto arrangement around here in this part of So CA. I think it kind of follows Lamar's point. Parents who are not satisfied tend to be vocal to the school's administrators. After a certain point, administrators are more than willing to let them go elsewhere, rather than force anybody to stay. From my anecdotal experience, it generally doesn't come down to such confrontational discord, but this does kind of portray the practice.

    The bigger problem is that public schools are still tasked to babysit for parents who don't give a shit, and the kids who likely follow their parent's attitudes. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

  • Ventifact||

    I have to say I was hugely disappointed by the NY Sun article. All it did was repeat opinions of various people and imply trends in education thought. How about a statistic or two, or maybe just a remarkable example? Are we really "deep" into the era of choice/vouchers/market experimentation in schools? Not to mention referring to vouchers as scholarships...

  • R C Dean||

    Are we really "deep" into the era of choice/vouchers/market experimentation in schools?

    I would say we more at the beginning of the pilot program era, myself.

  • ||

    Statewide open enrollment is the only way to go. Of course, that means moving school funding from local property taxes to a better statewide system, which will never happen.

  • Peter||

    My sister is a big liberal and administrator at a Manhattan private school. A vehement opponent of any form of school choice, vouchers or open enrollment, I reminded her that the poor and lower class residents of our own motherland (Newark, NJ area) had voted unanimously for a voucher program due to the decaying state of their public school system. I explained to her that in this case the people whose rights she claimed to be speaking for wanted vouchers themselves. She replied quite free of irony, "Well, they don't know what's good for them!"

    And it don't get any more liberal than my sister. Just thought I'd throw that in there. Her candor shocked me. It really disgusts me that certain people who claim to hold a more "compassionate" ideology can say a thing like that.

    Also, if she's such a fan of public schools, why isn't she working at one? I think anyone complaining that market factors would have absolutely no positive effect on the public school system and then choose to work instead at a private school (because they are qualified enough to have that choice) should meditate on their nature.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Statewide open enrollment is the only way to go. Of course, that means moving school funding from local property taxes to a better statewide system, which will never happen.

    Yeah, cause people want the freedom to send their kids to school someplace out of town.

    What state are you in, Rhode Island?

  • ||

    he replied quite free of irony, "Well, they don't know what's good for them!"

    And it don't get any more liberal than my sister.


    In my experience, "really liberal", and "you don't know what's best for you, but we do, and we'll give it to you, good and hard" go together like peanut butter and jelly.

  • Alice Bowie||

    I love the The Wine Commonsewer's point !!!

    IF we were able to take the $$$ allocated per child and spend it where we want...the crappy schools would eventually fade away.

    We can START by eliminating the BOARD OF EDUCATION in EVERY City, County, and state.

    A FEDERAL BOARD OF EDUCATION can do the following simple TASKs:

    1. Develop and implement NATIONAL TESTs for EACH Grade. These tests will be used to RANK schools nationwide.

    2. Deal with the Accounting of deligating $$$ to each child. This body could dictate a standard for class sizes, cost per child, equiptment costs, salaries, etc.

    3. Track costs and performance per child by Social Security #. As liberal as I am, i have no problems with the NATIONAL ID and NATIONAL Number. I don't c why we can't use our SSN for driver's licence, customer account, etc. This would help significantly in many ways.

    These Ideas are NOT Mine...and are NOT New...many European countries use this model. I know that the US is larger than any one European country...but I do have faith.

    GET RID of the BOARD OF EDUCATION at every level except FEDERAL

  • OTC addict||

    Education policy has very little to do with education and everything to do with equality. When government control and subsidy of high school education didnt lead to equality (however defined), then liberal democracies threw billions of dollars at the universities-- this didnt achieve equality either.

    the debate on school vouchers is stupid, education is primarily an individual responsibility, not a federal, state, local or even parental one.

  • S.A.Miller||

    http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_1_instructional_reform.html

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement