Jay Greene

"I'm very agnostic about what form choice must take."


Jay Greene is the author of several studies demonstrating that more choice in education leads to better outcomes. A professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, Greene is the author of Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools—and Why It Isn't So (Rowman & Littlefield). For a video version of the interview, go to reason.tv/video/show/jay-greene-interview.

reason: What is at the very top of your education reform list? 

Jay Greene: My highest priority is expanding school choice. But I'm very agnostic about what form that choice must take. I think there are lots of different ways of expanding the number and quality of choices that parents have.

reason: So you want tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, magnet schools.

Greene: To me, which form it takes is mostly a matter of political conven-ience. I think there are some forms of choice that are likely to be more educationally effective, more likely to be more equitably available, and so I have my preferences. But I just want to do whatever's politically feasible for expanding the choices. Not only so that the parents have more options, but also so that people working in the school system have more meaningful accountability for results. If people don't like it, they leave. 

(Interview continues after video.)

reason: What are the big benefits of school choice?

Greene: It allows people to get the type of education they need for them. We're not all the same. We don't all have the same goals for what our education should be. Choice allows us to customize.

The second big benefit is that choice and competition help improve average quality and hold down costs. And both of those are badly needed as well.

reason: What are the big obstacles to expanding the palette of school choice? 

Greene: I actually think that we're making huge progress. If we look at what intellectual opinion was among elites 20, 30 years ago, it was that parents were just bad choosers. They just didn't know what a good education was, and it was the role of elites to usher people into the right schools that did the right things for them. So even when there was choice, like magnet schools 30 years ago, these were schools that were structured entirely to produce a composition that elites wanted.

In the last 20, 30 years it has now become a widely shared view among elites in both parties that parents ought to have some say over where their children go to school and that competition for children is making schools better. We now have a huge number of charter schools when 20 years ago we had none. We have more than two dozen tax credit and voucher programs around the country, still with a relatively small number of students.

reason: What are the big obstacles to broadening school choice? 

Greene: The biggest obstacle is the teachers union and their political allies. They would be hurt by expanded choice and competition because it would put pressure on them to improve quality and it would shrink resources available to them for their own benefit. 

reason: What's the political calculus to turn it around to where parents and taxpayers are more in charge? 

Greene: The calculus is that every victory is permanent and every defeat is temporary, so that when choice is expanded it's very hard to take it away from people. Once they have it they like it and want to fight to keep it. The advantage that the unions have is they're well organized and highly interested in preventing new choice programs, and potential future beneficiaries of those choice programs don't know who they are, aren't organized, and can't advocate for them. So it takes an entrepreneur, a policy entrepreneur, to introduce a new choice program, to engage in the fight necessary to expand it. But once it's made available, it tends to create its own political support and its own demand for additional choices.