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Is School Choice Good for Kids? Listen to Last Night's Debate. [Reason Podcast]

ChoiceMedia's Bob Bowdon vs. Teachers College's Samuel Abrams in New York City last night.

Should taxpayer funding follow children to schools that their parents select, or should it go directly to pay the costs of the existing system? In a debate held in New York City last night, Bob Bowdon, the executive director of the education news site ChoiceMedia, went up against Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College and the author of Education and the Commercial Mindset.

Bowdon defended the following proposition: "Parents should have the choice to opt out of public schools and redirect the taxpayer tuition money for their children to other approved schools or educational options." Abrams took the negative.

The event was hosted by the Soho Forum, Reason's monthly libertarian-themed Oxford-style debate series. At the beginning of the event, attendees get to vote on the evening's resolution. After the debaters have had their say, the audience votes again, and the side that's gained the most ground wins the contest.

Bowdon started out the evening with 60 percent of the audience on his side and picked up one percent. Abrams had 21 percent at the outset and added 11 percent. Since Abrams gained more ground, he won the debate.

Last night's warm up act was Reason contributor and "World's Worst Mom" Lenore Skenazy talking about her shocking parental practices.

The Soho Forum will kick off its second season on September 19 with David Goldhill vs. Jacob Hacker on socialized health care. Get your tickets here.

Audio post-production by Ian Keyser.

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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Gene Epstein: Welcome to the Soho Forum, a monthly debate series that features topics of special interest to libertarians and aims to enhance social and professional ties within New York City's libertarian community. We're partnered with Reason magazine in presenting these debates and you can catch audio of all of our events on the Reason podcast, which you'll find in the iTunes store. I'd also like to than the Smith Family Foundation for making this series possible. I'm Gene Epstein, economics and books editor at Baron's Financial Weekly and the sole forum director and moderator. For more information and to buy tickets for future debates, go to our website at the SohoForum.org. This is an Oxford style debate in which the audience initially votes for, against, or undecided on the resolution, and then again after the debate is over. Whichever side moves the vote in his or her favor wins the contest.

Tonight's resolution is as follows, parents should have the choice to opt out of public schools and redirect the taxpayer tuition money for their children to other approved schools or educational options. Now, again, you'll have time in which to vote. Meanwhile, we're going to bring up our warmup act. That is Lenore Skenazy, officially known as the world's worst mom and author of the book, Free Range Kids. She's also a contributing editor to Reason magazine. I first saw Lenore putting everyone in a state of shock on the Dr. Phil Show and I'm thrilled to have her here tonight. Lenore, please warm us up.

Lenore Skenazy: Okay. I think that seems like a kind of warm crowd already, thank you so much, Gene. I'm not the world's worst mom, I'm actually America's worst mom. Not that I Google myself obsessively, but as of 2 A.M. you would find me there for 77 Google pages, followed by America's worst mother's day gift, which, there's so many guys there, I always tell my single friends to come here, is, "We don't an iron," and, "Lingerie is for father's day." Worst mom or not, I'm a mom and that means I spend a lot of time talking to other moms.

A couple years back, I was speaking to my upstairs neighbor, Manhattan, a skyscraper, her name is Melissa and she was looking at me with such consternation, saying, "Lenore, can you believe she did that?" I'm like, "No, I don't know what. Everybody's voting now, wait, look at me." Anyways, Melissa was really upset and I was like, "What happened?" Well, Melissa had been at Costco with her two little girls, who are about ages five and two at the time, waiting in line to checkout, and the lady behind her tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me, would you mind watching my little boy while I go get enough tuna for Armageddon?" Because that's how you shop at Costco. Melissa said, "Of course," because she's such a nice lady. Off went the woman and that's when Melissa turned to me and said, "That's what she did." I'm like, "Forgot the tuna." "No, Lenore, I could have taken her baby and she would never have seen him again." Melissa thought that the woman was really, really irresponsible and all the other moms agreed.

I was like, "I don't know, Melissa. Would you mind if we just play acted this for a second? First of all, for you to take this lady's baby would require you to be a kidnapper. One of the few with two small children of your own already. But maybe you wanted the boy, okay. All you have to do is wait for somebody to hand you a baby in public, which this lady did, and now you just take him and you're sidling through, you're going, 'Excuse me, excuse me.' You're leaving your place in line at Costco? That's insane. Then you get to the door and it's like, 'Are you stealing anything?' It's like, 'Not technically, not from Costco, per se,' and the little girl's going, 'Yes, we're stealing this other lady's baby. I used to be the baby, but apparently now I have a blue baby brother.' Like, 'Shut up.' Then you get out to the parking lot and you're kind of nervous because it's your first felony, and so you're trying to remember where did you park, and then you find the SUV, and you put the kids in, and the board books, and the seat belts."

"Then, you don't have a car seat for the baby, you didn't know today was your lucky day. So, you make him a car seat out of a laundry basket and you never asked, 'Is he old enough to face forwards or backwards now?' So you put him like sideways and then you give everybody the Cheerios, and you have to divide them up between three instead of two, and then you give everybody a sippy cup and a board book. And you go from Disney to Bob the Builder, which no better, and then you gun it across state lines, never to come home again, raising three little kids, one you don't even know his name. You can't use your credit cards, you can't use your phone, you're going to have to live on berries, and nuts, and you don't even have your last load of groceries from Costco, it's back in the line there." Melissa thought that the other lady was crazy. So, my question is always, who's crazy? Those of us that think that you can leave your kid in public, unattended, for a minute or two and they're still going to be okay, or whoever it is that doesn't think that?

Anyway, I was a newspaper columnist at the Daily News at the time, now I recommend another paper. Anyway, I was working at the Daily News then and I wrote a column about this, thinking that it would set the world on fire because it was such a weird moment in American society that we think that all children are in constant danger, and nobody cared. Okay, onward. Worked at another paper a couple years later, the New York Sun ... Oh, I thought it would erupt with applause, the New York Sun, come on. The late, lamented New York Sun, applause, applause. At that time, our younger son, who was nine at the time, started asking me and my husband if we would take him someplace he'd never been before and let him find his own way home on the subway. We had a talk about it, me and my husband, who you never hear of as America's worst dad, huh. Anyway, our older son, who's 11, hadn't asked us that before. He calls himself the control group. So, we talked about it and we decided, yeah, we were on the subways all the time, we think there's safety in numbers, the kid speaks the language, let's do it.

So, one sunny Sunday I took him to Bloomingdale's and I left him in the handbag department, after I told him it was that day, it wasn't like, "Mom? Mom?" It's like, "Honey, today's your big day," and off I went. When he came home, he was levitating. First of all, he came home, most important point, but he was so proud that we had let him do something and he had done something on his own. I didn't write about it immediately because, frankly, I didn't know my entire career depended on it, but it also didn't seem like that big a deal. It's like, aren't you supposed to gradually let your kids go? But about a month and a half later, when I was at the New York Sun, yay, and had no idea what I should write about, I said to my editor, "Should I write about Izzy taking the subway by himself? Some of the other fourth grade moms were saying they were going to wait a little longer until the kids were, you know, 38 or 39." She said, "Yeah, write about it, it's a nice local story." Local story.

So I wrote, "Why I let my nine year old ride the subway alone," and two days later I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News, and for contrast, NPR, being described as this wild mom with these crazy ideas, but usually it was kind of fun, a little bit banter. Sometimes Izzy was with me, sometimes not, but at some point in every interview, the interviewer would lean over and her voice would get low, and she would tremble with sincerity, which you know isn't, and say, "But Lenore, how would you have felt if he never came home?" I was always like, "Well, I do have that spare son." I literally never knew what to say, I felt like an idiot and finally I realized, I was an idiot. It took four years of being asked that question for me to finally realize why I didn't have a clever answer, or any answer that didn't make me look like an asshole.

The reason was, that's not a question, okay? How would I feel? She knows exactly how I'd feel. All the guilt, and the remorse, and, the hate on Twitter, and the shit storm on Facebook, and being on Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric, reviving her career with my tragedy. She knew everything that would happen to me if my son hadn't came home. So, why was she asking? She was asking as an accusation. Why wasn't I thinking about the very worst thing that could possibly happen and working my way back from there to the point where like, "Oh, I don't want that to happen," and therefore not letting my kid go. Because to be a good parent, let's face it, to be a good mom in America today, you have to do what I call worst first thinking. Go to the worst case scenario first, and proceed as if it's likely to happen.

I started my blog, Free Range Kids, to say, you know, I actually love safety, I love helmets, and car seats, and seat belts, and mouth guards. I have tow fire extinguishers in my kitchen and it's a New York City kitchen, there's no space for anything but the fire extinguishers. I really love safety, I just don't think the kids need a security detail every time they leave the house. Oh, everybody's standing and giving me , but let me just say what Free Range Kids is about.

Free Range Kids is saying that kids are not in constant danger. We are at a 50 year low in our crime rate. Our crime rate is back to the rate of 1963, which is fine unless you were a president. We have to ... Save for most of us. We have to fight this culture that is shoving fear down our throats and that is arresting parents who trust their kids and let them play outside, or walk to school, or walk home from the park. I'll just leave you with the Free Range Kids bill of rights, let's get it passed in New York City. Free Range Kids says, "Our children have the right to some unsupervised time, like we had, and we have the right to give it to them without getting arrested." Go Free Range. Thank you.

Epstein: You're America's worst mom, Lenore, you're not the world's worst mom, is that right? Just American's worst mom, okay, that's fair enough. I think we're closing the voting. Defending the resolution we have Bob Bowdon. Bob, please come to the stage. The executive director of Choice Media TV, an investigative video website devoted to education reform.

Bob Bowdon: Thank you.

Epstein: Bob Bowdon.

Talking for the negative, we have Samuel E Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University, and author of, Education and the Commercial Mindset. Sam will be doing signing and sales of his book after the debate, bring your plastic, it's about $10 cheaper than what you have to pay on Amazon. So, Sam, please come to the stage.

Welcome both, guys. We've closed the voting, Naomi, I assume. Bob Bowdon, you have 12 minutes to go up to the podium, if you'd like, yeah? To defend the proposition, parents should have the choice to opt out of public schools and redirect the taxpayer tuition money for their children to other approved schools or educational options. Take it away, Bob.

Bowdon: All right, thank you, Gene. Thank all of you for coming, I feel safe here in the fallout shelter in the event of a thermonuclear war, I suggest you duck, cover, and come here. The good news as I see it is that we will survive if there is a nuclear war this hour. The bad news is, if we are tasked with the solemn job of repopulating the planet afterwards, I consider the gender ratio to be non-optimal in the room here.

That said, this is an unusual situation. Let me just first say, I went to public school, my mother was a public school teacher, and years later, four or five years later after having teachers move to another city, I wrote letters of appreciation to these teachers. Telling them how much I loved them. I went and visited one of them, the other I couldn't find, because public school teachers had really touched my life in a positive way, but like many of you, I also ... I suspect many of you had bad teachers, too. So, what's strange, the weird thing about this night, it's not like a parallel structure, where there's two teams, Giants or Patriots. There's two teams, as if he's for public schools and I'm for private schools, or he's for public schools, I'm for charter schools. It's not like that. I guess the last debate was Adam Smith versus ... You're for Paul, right? You were Paul the last debate, right?

It's not a parallel structure with two equal sides like that, my side says, all of you choose. All of you make up your own minds about what school is best for your children. The other side says, those who can afford it will make up their own minds for where to send their kids, but if you can't afford it you will be assigned, whether you like it or not, under power of truancy laws, to particular schools that may or may not work, may or may not be dangerous, may or may not have graduate rates over 50%. If you have the money, like politicians, like ... I would only call it a deaf eared irony that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and activists like Matt Damon would say, "We're against private school choice programs." When it comes to our own kids, we're sending them to private school. It's not grandiose, it's not an exaggeration to say it's quite simply, public schools, okay for you, but not okay for me. That's what so many in the education establishment defend, that very principle, that choice is okay for us, we will jealously guard it, but it's not okay for you.

So, what do I mean by the fact that school assignment has negative consequences? Which I'm going to get into. First of all, to be clear, and I think we probably agree on this, standardized tests have their limitations, they should be described in context, they are not the be all end all, believe me, and I'll go on a lot about that if it comes up. The international PISA test, it's given to 15 year old students all around the world. I think you probably know, have a sense of where America scored the last one. The data released in December 2016, anyone want to guess where the United States scored in math of our 15 year olds?

Bowdon: 37, someone that said it, actually. We were tied for 37th in the world and not just beaten by countries like the UK, or France, or Germany, we were beaten by Latvia, we were beaten by Slovenia, we were beaten by countries that spend less per student than we do, but let's say all those other countries cheated. We have our own test called the NATE, it's called the Nation's Report Card. In fact, anyone can just look up NationsReportCard.gov on your phones right now. What would you find the percentage of eighth grade students proficient in math? Since I just mentioned math. It's 33% nationally. Now, believe me, in certain urban areas it's far lower than that, but 1/3 of our nation's children are proficient math, according to our own tests given in all 50 states, and they control for demographics, like for income, race, gender. This test is a statistical, supposedly statistically representative of the United States. So, that's 33% math proficiency. I should point out reading and science proficiencies were better, they were 34%. US history proficiency, 18%. But, that's just standardized tests.

Something that means more than that, I think, is graduating from high school at all. A lot of people say today, if you don't have a master's degree you're not competitive in the economy, in our increasingly technological world economy. Well, our national high school graduation rate is 83%. So, 17% of our kids are not finishing high school today. One out of six American children. Imagine going out into life without even a high school degree. I have a feeling this crowd here is an educated audience, not a statistical sample of the United States, but lets pretend for a moment that this is a statistical sample of the United States. What I'm going to do is, do a little trick, if your last name begins with an A, please raise your hand right now. If your last name begins with an A ... You don't have to, it's okay. Now, B, raise your hand. A's, keep up, keep your hand up. C, raise your hand. Everyone in this room now, everyone can look around, see those hands? You can put your hands down, this represents 17% of the American population.

If we were not maybe somewhat an elite or lucky group, everyone with their hands up could represent someone who didn't finish even high school in America, and we know where this leads. It leads to the odds of you being incarcerated skyrocket. The odds of opiod addiction, skyrocket. Broken families and broken lives. We're talking about millions of American children. There's something I call in the work I do, which is what I call a disparity in rage, a rage gap. What I mean by that, is when there are people in the establishment who will see millions of children that I just described not finishing even high school, and how do they react? They shrug, "Oh, it's unfortunate. Maybe we should give them a little more money and try that, maybe they'll do better," but you don't get angry tweets, you don't get hostility, you don't get rage.

When do you get rage from the establishment? You suggest circumventing the traditional system. You talk about more charter schools, you talk about vouchers, you talk about education savings. That's when you get the massive outpouring of anger, rage, and hostility. That's how the establishment reacts to choice. I find that galling in the work I do. I don't know if you guys do, but we're talking about broken lives here and I just said 17% is the national number. You know what it is in New York? The state we're in right now? 79% high school graduation rate, same with Georgia. Latino males nationally? 65%. Black males nationally, 59% high school graduation rate.

Today, in America, almost half the black males are not finishing high school. That's the system we have, ladies and gentlemen. In fact, the group that put out this data, this is from 2015, published in Education Week, they said that in fact, in Philadelphia, the black male high school graduation rate was 24%. The Philadelphia district said, "No, no, that number's ridiculous. You got the number wrong, it's actually in the mid-50's." The school district defended itself, the defense of the school district was saying, "No, no, about 55% of our black males finish high school today in America." That's the system we have.

What are these policies ... What's part of this system? What policies do the school monopolies fight for? Well, tenure, how about that one? AFT president Randi Weingarten's saying teacher tenure's not a job for life, it's ensuring fairness and due process before someone can be fired, plain and simple. Well, you don't have to have this argument with people, is it a job for life, is it not, just ask for the numbers. Because they publish the numbers for California in what's called the Vergara suit. There are 277,000 teachers in California. In a 10 year period, and this was evidence in the case, do you know how many teachers were fired? Of the 277,000? In 10 years, 91 were fired. Most of them had been arrested for crimes like felonies, things like that. The ones fired just for not being good teachers was 19, in a 10 year period out of 277,000. In fact, that's one state, there are other states where it's a little easier to fire teachers and so the national center for education statistic says, it's more, nationally, more like one in 500 of tenured teachers that will get fired, 0.2%. Okay, so these kind of policies won't just shock you, they'll make you mad, as you could probably sense already.

Six years ago, the Los Angeles School District had a pedophile kindergarten teacher committing horrific mass sexual abuse to ... I'm not going to tell you what this guy did, but to 23 six year olds, you can Google it if you want, his name is Mark Berndt. This guy, the school district paid $40,000 to quit. They paid a pedophile to quit because ... They didn't say they could have never fired him, they said that it would just take so long with all the hearings, and all the appeals, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, it's saving the district money to pay a pedophile to quit. I am not saying this is representative of teachers, I'm saying, what do you learn about the teacher tenure system that is still in place, that same policy in California today, when they've got to pay a pedophile to quit. You can't even get that guy out easily.

The fact is, imagine you're not a criminal, you're just teacher number, maybe, using the national number, 496 out of 500. You just don't care about your job. You're not a sexual abuser, just maybe you're teacher rated number 494. You're fine. Nothing's going to ever happen to you. You're going to be just fine in that job. Now, you also have all kinds of other things. It is illegal in New Jersey today to lay off a teacher if there's an enrollment drop, they sometimes have layoffs, you're not allowed to consider teacher performance in layoffs. It's against the law to consider teacher performance if you're going to lay people off. You guys hear what I'm saying? It's unbelievable. This is insane.

All over the country we have policies where a great, hardworking teacher is paid less than a terrible teacher who phones it in. If that terrible teacher has one extra year of seniority, through both their entire careers. If this makes sense to you, I will take a camera crew and follow you, and pitch this to banks, insurance companies, pitch it to a Silicon Valley software firms. Say like, "I've got a great idea guys, why don't you only ..." Tell a cleaning service to do this, tell an auto dealership to do this, they'll say you're crazy because it would hurt the mission of the organization. We're going to pay people only based on years of services and we will never, in the layoffs, if we have to have layoffs, consider performance.

Look, the fact is, is that charter schools and vouchers, I didn't get to time for that, but they have tremendous positive effects. A study by Paul Peterson of Harvard University showed that children receiving New York City scholarships, it was a private scholarship, 25% more likely to go to college. Credo, the largest ... Stanford University study, largest charter school study that's ever been done, finding in a report from 2015, and I quote, "That kids in urban charter schools get the equivalent of roughly 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading, for every year they're in the charter school." So, huge studies show choice works. We have a horrible broken system looking at it just in the realm of the terrible graduation rates, particularly in the worst urban centers. School choice will allow us to innovate, match children to schools, and unlock creativity.

Epstein: Sam, you get an extra 15 seconds. Thank you. Thank you, Bob. Sam Abrams, 12 minutes and 15 seconds to speak for the negative.

Samuel Abrams: Thank you for having me here, I welcome this opportunity. I think so many of our conversations these days are siloed, we're not listening to each other. I don't want to disappoint people here tonight, but I think Bob and I actually have a lot more in common than people would concede. I think people across the spectrum in the educational world have more in common than is typically conceded. There's so much fire out there, but I think a lot of it's unnecessary and this is a great opportunity, I think, to put some of that fire out, rather than generate more. In that light, as common ground, we're all concerned about the healthy development of children, that they become creative, productive members of society. I don't think there's any question, there's no difference there at all.

There's actually very little difference in our concerns or actually assessments of dysfunctionality. I think we will disagree about why we have this dysfunctionality. This is old news and it comes from the left, as well as the right. We happen to have a sociologist, an eminent sociologist here tonight, David Rogers, who wrote a very important book in 1968, if you haven't read it, you should read it, called 110 Livingston Street. It's the metonymical term for the Board of Education, as 110 Livingston Street was the location for the Board of Education as the center for education of New York was called before Bloomberg renamed it the Department of Education. That book by David Rogers was about bureaucratic pathology.

Before that, you have Bel Kaufman in her great novel, Up the Down Staircase, about some of the stuff that Bob just referred to, indirectly. Then you have people like Debbie Meyer, very far on the left, who wrote In a Cover Story in the Nation in 1991, Choice Can Save Public Education. Albert Shankar three years earlier called for charter schools, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. Sy Fliegel in his book, A Miracle in East Harlem, The Fight for Choice in Public Education. Sy Fliegel was a career New York City public school teacher and administrator.

It's understood on the left that we have a lot of these problems. The causes we'll differ about for sure. In that regard, I should stop for historical context, you might remember the Desiderius, said the Desiderius Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched. It could be said that Albert Shanker, and Debbie Meyer, and Ted Sizer, some 30 years ago, laid the egg that so many choice advocates have hatched since. Now, reformations, this reformation, like all reformations, go through their own reformations. So, what's happening today with Betsy DeVos is quite different from what a lot of charter school advocates wanted. We kind of have Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams in the form of Betsy DeVos, with Martin Luther I guess being the founders of the charter school movement some 25 years ago.

Now, for this debate, the best point of departure, I think, is Milton Friedman's essay, the Role of Government in Education in 1955. It was an essay and a Festschrift honoring Eugene Agar, the former head of the Department of Economics at Rutgers University, the name of the book is Economics and the Public Interest. When most people cite Freedman, they go back to 1962 because he has a chapter by that same name in Capitalism and Freedom, but you really should read the 1955 iteration. In part because there's this long footnote, page 131, footnote number two, concerning white flight. Bear in mind, he was writing this a year after Brown versus Board of Education. In calling for school choice, in calling for vouchers, he said, yes, we might have some white flight if people are able to use vouchers, but we have to use persuasion rather than regulation to combat that. That's not in the 1962 edition.

Now, as conveyed by this title, in this essay, the Role of Government in education, Milton Friedman accepted that government indeed has a role in education. As we've just heard, Bob Bowdon clearly accepts the assertion, too, that's the very premise of this debate. The issue is what role. It should not be taken for granted that there is a role for government in education. Frankly, a libertarian would be very consistent in opposing a role for government in education. In fact, Milton Friedman expressed his opposition to the role of government in education, a letter to Warren Nutter, an economist probably best known as a colleague of James Buchanan, not the president, the economist, in 1959. It was four years after he wrote the essay, The Role of Government in Education. What Milton Freedom wrote was, in principle, the full burden of education should be borne by the parents of children, not the state. He went on to add that this would be an appropriate way for people to have the right number of children, if the government didn't have to cover the cost.

Yet, Freedom was a lot more practical than that. He argued in this 1955 essay that just as the government has a role as a referee to enforce contracts, to prevent coercion and keep markets free. Just as the government has a role as a regulator of natural monopolies like water and electrical utilities, where fixed costs relative to the size of the market made competition untenable. Just as the government has those roles as a referee and a regulator, the government also has a role as a guardian of children.

Now, this was from a humanitarian perspective, but also from a very practical perspective. What Milton Friedman was concerned about, he says, is neighborhood effects. Now, technically speaking, economists now call these externalities. Costs borne by parties not responsible for ... Not having anything to do with generating those costs, so irresponsible parents in this regard. He was really concerned about some kind of Dickensian nightmare. If you don't have education, you're going to have kids in the street picking pockets, slipping into prostitution, never becoming productive, creative members of society. Frankly, that's the basis for public education in the United States.

You go back to the Massachusetts school laws of 1642 and 1647, what were they worried about in 1642 and 1647? Well, idle hands making for devil's play in 1642. So, if a child wasn't learning a trade, they would be taken by the selectmen of that town, that's the initiation of the foster care program. In 1647, it was declared that every town with 50 homes, 50 families, rather, had to have a primary school. Every town with 100 families had to have a secondary school, because they had to read the Bible and be literate, so they wouldn't be deluded and deceived by the saint seeming deceivers and their false glosses. That is Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson.

The point is, Milton Freedom, like the Massachusetts general court, said you had to have primary school, you had to have secondary school, otherwise, there were going to be real negative neighborhood effects. Given that, I think what we have to ask ourselves is, what are the neighborhood effects of tonight's resolution? What are the neighborhood effects of letting parents make this decision about where they're going to take their money? Using an online school, sending them to a private school, maybe private religious school, as opposed to sending them to the default public school or public school with choice.

Now, his formula, believer in the market as he was, Milton Freedmen, was that every parent would get a voucher and it would be worth a fixed amount of money. Private school could charge more, if they wanted. In other words, you'd have to top-up in order to afford that private school. These private schools would have control over admissions. They'd have control over expulsion and continued enrollment. He compared it to the GI Bill, just as veterans from the war could use money from the government to attend universities, then likewise, parents should be able to do the same thing.

Now, this argument's been recycled over and over by many different people. The big advantages, Milton Friedman said, were, well, a ticket out of the ghetto, is that how we put it for people in lousy schools. Improved delivery through competition. Better salaries for teachers through competition for their services. As far as white flight is concerned, he conceded it, as I said, in that long footnote, page 131, footnote number two. It's not in the 1962 edition. He said that'll be taken care of with time. He made this argument over the next 40 years, again in Capitalism and Freedom in 1962, in an article Selling School like Groceries in the New York Times Magazine in 1973, Busting the School Monopoly in Newsweek in 1983, and then finally, in 1995, Public School, Make them Private. Now, in the abstract, we can see a lot of problems with this. The topping up revision can lead to segregation by class. Private school admissions, segregation by race. Private school expulsions, for-profit school management is highly problematic, that's a central part of my book. Not to take that commercial break inappropriately. When I told my editor that I didn't know writing a book involved salesmanship, this editor, 60's-70's liberal, said, "Salesmanship is the genius of American civilization." So, I'm mindful of that.

We have exit of people from the system and with them, their voice. A.O. Hirschman made this argument in 1970 in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Then you have, on account of kids not staying in these schools, concentration of underperforming kids. Now, we don't have to just think about this in the abstract, we've got plenty of empirical evidence of the negative neighborhood effects of school choice. Chile, that's where Milton Friedman's boy, the Chicago Boys, implemented his system, and terrible socioeconomic segregation, poor academic performance. The same things actually happened in Sweden, believe it or not, the penultimate chapter of my book is about Sweden. That program was initiated in 1992-

Epstein: 30 seconds, Sam.

Abrams: Okay. Then Michigan. Michigan, home to Betsy and Dick DeVos, has been a disaster. The NATE scores have declined, Bob mentioned NATE scores before, and that is where we'd end. I'll just say at the very last moment, the market needs a place and the market needs to be kept in place, that's what Arthur Okun said. Like Milton Friedman got his PhD at Columbia 10 years afterwards. That is, I think, the nutshell of my argument. Thank you.

Epstein: Thank you, Sam. Bob Bowdon, five minutes for rebuttal.

Bowdon: I'm going to need more than five.

Epstein: No, you can't-

Bowdon: Just kidding. Just kidding.

Epstein: Can't have anymore.

Bowdon: I know, I was just kidding. All right, so let's run through it. I'm not quite sure ... What I thought we'd be debating is whether things like vouchers, and education savings accounts, and tax credit scholarships for private schools, or the charter school movement in the United States, should be expanded rapidly. I'm not sure, based on your presentation, whether you're for that or not. I think you can guess I'm probably for that. Let me just run through a couple things.

He did mention discrimination. First of all, in the case of private school racial discrimination, this is already off the table because of a US Supreme Court Case Runyon versus McCrary decided in 1976, it's illegal for private schools to discriminate on the basis of race. That's already handled, if it's found there could be suits, there could criminal investigation. Number two, for all the other things, which get complex in our lives like LGBT and transgender issues, and people who ... All kinds of other classes of individuals, I would say any state can write their state voucher law any way they want. They could write it to prevent any form of discrimination they see fit in their law, and therefore it's handled.

It would be just as illegal as any discrimination in a public school, if that was found. Number three, we should have a pluralistic society, I think good people can disagree about certain issues like things like gay marriage, or things like abortion, or things like what to tell a teenager about sex and at what age, and how much to emphasize abstinence. All these issues, well meaning people can disagree about those things. So, I'm a first amendment guy, I like to have a lot of ideas, I don't like to think of America as heading in a direction of, we're going to have one answer for all of these new hot-button issues and there'll be another one next year, and the year after that. Like Kim Kim Jong-un, we're going to enforce a certain view of each hot-button issue and force everyone to believe this one indoctrination theory. I'm against that.

Then finally, on the discrimination issue, the hypocrisy, to me, is clear. The regular district schools, funny, I don't see too many poor kids in Beverley Hills High, I wonder why that is? Because if they're low income, they're discriminated against, in all kinds of other ways. They're all girls and all boys schools, that are generally supported, they discriminate on the basis of gender every day. Magnet schools in every city in the country discriminate against kids that aren't smart or can't sing and dance well. In fact, they'll say public schools have to accept everyone, and yet, certain special needs? They're turned away. We can't handle a blind kid here, we can't handle a deaf kid here. In every district in the country, there's discrimination in the regular public schools. So, the discrimination argument, I think ... Really, number two I think is the most important, that you can write your law any way you want and prohibit any discrimination you want, on a state level, and I'm cool with that. Make up your own mind.

Now, I want to tell you something about, right now we have caps. See, so we have statewide voucher laws in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana. We have statewide tax credit scholarship programs in places like Florida and Pennsylvania. These are places where the money's never government money, it's donated to a scholarship granting organization, and then kids get those scholarships, but all of those private school choice programs that have ever existed in the United States ... My voice sounds really high right now, I must be really excited. All of those are capped, none of them are open to everybody. Every single one of them you have to have below a certain income to be eligible, you have to be a certain special needs to be eligible, you have to be zoned to a certain bad school to be eligible. Why do you cap something? You cap it because you're afraid it'll be too popular. There's not much of a need to cap something if no one wants it.

I had an Uber driver in Columbus, I made a YouTube video, it's on the Choice Media page, he said, "My neighbor's lucky, he's zoned in an area," you know school district lines can be ... Your neighbor across the street can be in a different district. He's like, "He's zoned in an area with a failing public school." Why does that make him lucky? "Because he's eligible for the voucher in Ohio that only goes to people zoned in failing school areas and he's sending his kid to a private school. I wish I could, but I have the misfortune of not being zoned in the area with a classified failing public school."

Look, when you really want to understand choice, we did a video called Faith in Excellence. We interviewed a 15 year old girl who started to talk about the vicious and relentless bullying she received every day going to a K through nine traditional public school, 10th grade in a Catholic school.

Epstein: 30 seconds.

Bowdon: She started to weep on camera, you can pull it up and see it yourself, she said these mean girls, they know ... If you had to go into that room every day, you know they hate you. There's nothing you can do. We told the teacher, nothing happened. We told the district, nothing happened. She said, "I finally got out to a Catholic school, got a scholarship at 10th grade," she said it was a second chance at life. We had to stop the camera because she was crying because she was stuck in this school that had generally good scores and yet, her life was terrible. At the age of 15 she described a second chance at life. To me, that sells the school choice story better than anything.

Epstein: On that note, thank you, Bob. Sam you get an extra 15 seconds again. Go ahead. Five minutes, Sam, your rebuttal.

Abrams: Well, what I want to address first, a couple of things you said, Bob, in the opening. PISA scores being very low, 37th in math. In fact, yeah, we haven't been doing well in math, that's true. Actually, in reading and science we were above the mean in 2015. Now, the PISA exam, for those of you that don't know, it's an exam administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development every three years since 2000, to a random sample of approximately 5,100 kids in each member nation. It's two hours science, two hours reading, two hours math. It's not a sadistic exercise, you don't take six hours, it's 1,700 kids who do each one. To get to this issue, the scores aren't really that bad, they're very tightly clustered. So, if you're 37th, you might be very close to 36, 35, 34, these are very close and the math scores have been low. Why is it the math scores are low? We can talk about that in a second.

What I'm concerned about here, Bob, is really the root cause. A favorite story comes to mind in this regard, of Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel. The story goes that if Leo Durocher were in a clubhouse and the roof were caving it, he'd yell and holler and everybody would get out just in time. Now, Casey Stengel, known as a professor, would figure out how to keep the roof up. What's going on with these PISA scores? A UNICEF study done of the 30 member nations of the OECD in 2012 found that we have, by far, the highest rate of childhood poverty, 23%. We pay our teachers terribly. I was a teacher for 18 years, I always had a second job. Teachers in the United States make about 65 to 70% of what their college classmates make. At the upper secondary level in Finland, for example, you make 110%. Now, a lot of people reflexively dismiss the relevance of Finland because it's small, it's homogenous, and it's egalitarian. Phooey. Read chapter 12 of my book.

Sweden, okay, called across the Gulf, appropriately, the Gulf of Bothnia, but also the Gulf metaphorically. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are also small, homogenous, and egalitarian, and to Bob's point about PISA, as you'll see in chapter 12 of my book, the United States, over the first five administrations of that exam, had a 496 in science, the mean score is a 500, the standard deviation is 100 points. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden combined, a 494. Finland, a 550. So, about 35 points represents a year of learning. So, the Fins do something quite different and this is what we're not getting at. If we're going to be Casey Stengel instead of Leo Durocher, we have to figure out why it is. It's high childhood poverty, bad treatment of teachers, we're not paying them enough. What Bob said about tenure, he's right, you can't defend it. It's been move, frankly, on the part of the teacher's unions to defend it. I think unionization is important, all the teachers in Finland are unionized, except for a couple troublemakers who have to be on the outside because of their constitution. But Bob's right about it.

Take a look at the teacher pay, take a look at the teacher treatment, take a look at the teacher preparation. The scores in science for Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, they're below the United States, not close to Finland. As far as graduation rates are concerned, Bob's right, but what is not right about our education system, to get back to Casey Stengel, is we don't have solid vocational education. In Finland, 45% of 16 year olds go on to vocational education. Here, it's 8%. Now, that's an upside down problem. It's not that tracking's bad, it's the economic consequences of tracking. If you graduate with a diploma in culinary arts, or carpentry, or auto maintenance, or cosmetology, in Finland, your salary's not dwarfed by a doctor, computer science, scientist, lawyer, or banker. In the United States it is dwarfed and you don't have maternity/paternity leave. You don't have free preschool for your kid. You don't have a great school in your neighborhood. You don't have a pension if you're working at Super Cuts, that's a very important job. A lot of us care more about our haircuts than we do about our visits to the doctor. Getting your hair dyed is probably the national sport of Finland, it's not hockey. Finally-

Abrams: Yeah. Pensions. We have to take a big step back, as I said at the outset, I think we've got a lot more in common here and maybe Bob and I will continue this conversation afterward, but it's the root cause that we have to take a look at, the structural critique of poverty and under performance, not the cultural one. Thank you.

Epstein: Thank you, Sam. Now, at this stage of the debate, each of our debaters will be able to ask two questions of each other. We'll alternate. Bob, could you lob your first question at Sam Abrams? Take it away, Bob.

Bowdon: Sure. Okay. So, this is the fun part, right? It's a little less scripted. I guess my question for you is, I'm unclear whether you would support an aggressive expansion of school choice programs like vouchers, education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships, and the charter school movement, should they be accelerated broadly across the United States? Because in lots of studies and surveys they've done well and we have huge waiting lists for many charter schools and we have, as you know in the 25-26 years of charter schools, every single year the number of schools has gone up, but yet, it's still only 5% of the school age population and there's a million on waiting lists. So, should we have a lot more choice? I thought I would be clear from your original presentations that I suspected you to be against that, but maybe you're not.

Epstein: We have the question. Sam.

Abrams: I'm against much expansion. For example, in Massachusetts, you probably remember back on November 8th, the state decided, 62 to 38, in a referendum, to put a lid, keep the lid rather, on charter schools, that we shouldn't add more. A lot of the economists and education policy makers were saying that this was a mistake because these charter schools perform very well. People at MIT were making that argument. The problem with their perspective was they were taking a look at a very small sample that were already in existence. Because we have an array, the studies you've cited by Credo, there's an array of charter schools, and we have to control quality. I've got two chapters on charter schools in my book, on Mastery and KIPP, I've seen great things, but we have to be very careful about their growth. One of the things we have to be very careful about in this regard, Bob, is the consequences of a lot of kids not being able to handle the rigid behavioral and academic expectations of these schools.

Now, a lot of these best performing schools are pyramids. You start off with maybe 100 kids in fifth grade and by eighth grade you might have only 50. So, you have attrition. You also have essentially a barrier to entry at the outset because a lot of parents will hear that this school's really tough. Word will get out that you're going to have to repeat fifth grade, that's one way to expel kids, by telling them, "Bob, we love you, you're a wonderful guy, great smile, and you're great at recess, but you're going to have to repeat fifth grade." Now, if you're a typical kid, you're going to say, "Mom, I'm not doing this again."

So, what happens is, you get concentrated in the default neighborhood public school. As I said, I was a teacher for 18 years and often had 34 kids in a class, that's the cap in New York City. If I had three tough kids, I could handle it. If I had six tough kids, I couldn't, and it wasn't twice as hard, there was a chain reaction, it's exponentially more difficult. This is happening across the country. You'll have very good charter schools and I'm fond of many of these, but there is a negative consequence.

Epstein: Sam, your question to Bob.

Abrams: Okay. What would be your recommendation for reforming tenure?

Bowdon: Oh, get rid of it. Yes. I would basically have principals be in charge of the schools they run, teachers would, like in many private schools and some charter schools, most teachers would work and the great teachers would soar. I talked to Mike Feinberg, who's the co-founder of KIPP, who said, "Let your stallions run." What that meant is, let your great teachers go, let them be creative, don't hem them in with a million regulations, and generally support their ideas. Yeah, I think I've taken less air time on my answer than he did, but it was an easy answer.

Epstein: That's good. An easy question, an easy answer. Bob, one of your tough questions to which Sam will give a tough answer.

Bowdon: I would say, if you were a low income parent, zoned to a chronically failing, inner city urban school, like for example in the Strawberry Mansion high school in Philadelphia with a 36% graduation rate in 2015, according to the Philadelphia Notebook. Featured in an ABC News story with Diane Ravitch titled, Inside One of the Country's Most Dangerous Schools. And you were offered a charter school or a voucher to get out of that school, would you accept it as a parent or would you say, "No, I'll take my chances with the district school?"

Epstein: Bob, it's a great question.

Abrams: We operate on the margin as individuals. On this stage, we're talking about making policy. I've actually told friends of mine, "Take your kid out of that particular public school because there's so much testing and if you have the disposable income or you can get a scholarship, send them to a private school." Because there are a lot of bad things going on with all the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind and now re-mandated in a different form by the Every Student Succeeds Act. But, there a big difference between making a decision as an individual on the margin, it's not hypocritical, and making a decision for policy. If you're in that position, if you're in West Philly, and I've got a chapter, two chapters, on mastery as well as KIPP, head of a wonderful charter school, Mastery Shoemaker, he does a great job. If your child's in that neighborhood, yes, you should go and try to be in school. You're operating on the margin.

I'm talking about, and this is what I was saying, let's back pedal for a bit. In terms of making policy, we've got to think bigger. You talked about Mike Feinberg and letting teachers run like stallions. The fact of the matter is, I've got this in my book, too, the attrition rate at these schools, for teachers, not just students, they're losing one out of three teachers a year. You have no intellectual capital, no institutional memory, you have no mentorship of younger teachers. You're right about the overprotection of tenured teachers, you're absolutely right, it's poisonous, it's counterproductive, but if you don't have more stability and protection of teachers ... Again, Finland's got a universally unionized teaching staff, you're not going to have that institutional memory, you're not going to have the mentorship of younger teachers, and that is a terrible price to pay.

Epstein: Sam, thanks for the answer. You have a second and final question to Bob.

Abrams: Bob, what do you have to say about this matter of teacher attrition?

Bowdon: Well, let's talk about teacher attrition, I think there's a positive aspect to teacher attrition, which you leave out, which is part of accountability. To say that the best way to end teacher attrition is to just never fire anyone and never held anyone accountable for anything, and then also pay them a lot more and give them lots of benefits, and give them summers off, and basically let them do whatever they want. Jobs for life. There you have reduced teacher attrition, if that is your goal. I would say that's not the goal.

In fact, when you make the consumer of the service, the family, in charge of selecting the provider, there are all these things that inherently work better because you don't have to worry about these kind of top-down mechanistic, "Let's fix this rule about tenure this way," or, "This teacher retention, we're going to give them this extra vacation days to hold more teachers," et cetera. You just naturally run a school better, for the benefit of the consumer, meaning the family.

Epstein: Thanks, Bob, for your answer. We're going to be lining up, I'm going to just ask one question. Lining up for questions, so please go to the mic, but meanwhile, I'm going to take moderator's prerogative to just have one question to address to you both. Perhaps it's mainly addressed to you, Sam. We do have a sort of inequality of distribution of choice with respect to school in this country. As you've indicated, people with money can exercise choice. Is that an issue for you, Bob? Is that an issue for you, Sam? That it's choice for me, but not for thee. Is that a problem for you, Sam?

Abrams: It is a problem and it's very well stated, and Bob brought it up very well at the outset. There is a problem with Obama, and Damon, and Clinton sending their kids to private schools and denying others essentially the opportunity to do the same. It's highly problematic, I don't think it can be denied. It may have indirectly cost Hillary Clinton the election because ... Barack Obama, likewise, wasn't sending his children to public school. Jimmy Carter did. In the answer to your question, again, if we take a big step backwards, we're not talking about operating on the margin, let's go back to 1973, San Antonio versus Rodriguez. That's Supreme Court decision denied leveling the playing field. Now, that case originated in 1968, plaintiff's for families in the Edgewood section of San Antonio, where the children weren't getting as much per people as the children in Alamo Heights. They said, "This is a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

If our children aren't getting an education of tantamount quality, they're not going to be able to exercise their first amendment rights." In a 5-4 decision, Lewis Powell, writing for the majority, the Supreme Court ruled that this is too loose a reading of the Equal Protection Clause. Thurgood Marshall went ballistic, said this is the same thing as Brown versus Board of Education. If Clinton had won, Michael Rubel and other were ready to re-litigate San Antonio versus Rodriguez. Again, we have to take a big step back, this is leveling that's been deputized to the states since 1973, about 20 states have introduced equalization formulas, but even those equalization formulas aren't really what they appear to be because the localities can do tax overrides and spend more on their children.

Epstein: Thanks, Sam. You want to comment on that-

Bowdon: Sure.

Epstein: ... Bob, before the-

Bowdon: Sure. Let me just quickly say the Massachusetts vote on the charter moratorium contradicts what a lot of other states did, that have accelerated and supported charter growth. Also, millions of dollars of union money, by the way, taken from teachers without their consent, went into messaging the public to put a moratorium on charters in Massachusetts. With all due respect, I would have to say, to me, it's nothing but elitist to say that yes, if you are a parent with a kid with a 36% high school graduation rate in that school, yeah, maybe you should take the voucher, use the charter school option. But as policy makers, we elites have to look down on these little people and make sure that they don't get too much freedom and make too many choices for their own. You say we should take a big step back, I saw we need to take a big step forward. There are waiting lists at these schools all over the country, all the voucher and private school programs are capped because they would be so popular, and there is demand out there.

We trust parents to make decisions about their children in all kinds of other ways, from their diet, to their healthcare, to where the children live, to what kind of media their children should consume. We use government to fund all kinds of other choices, Pell Grants to pick whatever university you want, that's a government money that lets you choose. Medicaid and Medicare is government money that lets you pick your doctor. What? Everything from section eight housing vouchers let you pick where you want to live, to a whole range of other choices, where you're given money by the government and you're allowed to make choices. There's not an argument like, "Since this is government money, we have to order you to a doctor with your Medicare or Medicaid check, you get to pick your doctor." The fact that this one sector called K through 12 education has been eliminated and protected from that, is a huge problem.

Epstein: Huge problem, okay. First question, I think I see Mark. Mark, give us your question. Please frame your question as a question, everybody. Take it away, Mark.

Mark: Right. Bob, would you respond to Sam Abrams, he mentioned several cases where school choice apparently didn't work. He mentioned Chile, Sweden, and I think Michigan, he said was a disaster. So, what are the stories here? Are there empirical studies that say that school choice works and then there are empirical studies that say that it don't work?

Bowdon: Right. So, all over the place when there are private school choice programs, there are people that will claim that they're big disasters, but when he actually look at it, see, they're not disasters at all, in my opinion. Sweden, for example, for all, even in Sam's own book, he admits that medium muckrakers took to opposing the Swedish system. Between the government and media, they tried to destroy it. Yet, for some reason, for five years now, its enrollment is within a half a percent of its all time high. This disaster in Sweden, for some reason, parents are not walking away. About half the kids in Stockholm are taking private school vouchers in Sweden.

In Chile, there's been huge improvement, which I have here, a study published June 2017, last month, saying they passed what's called preferential schools subsidy law and accountability provisions. Which, in Chile, has made, according to the study, those private schools options way better. So, disaster there? No. These programs never go away. There's not a state in United States where they've disappeared, there's not a city like the DC vouchers, although people have tried, they've never gone away. Countries like the Netherlands, like Chile, like Sweden, all these programs that are supposed to be disastrous remain popular. Parents keep voting with their feet because they want these options and there will be certain professors, or government officials, or union people, that will say, "Oh, it's terrible, it's bad," and what they really want is more power.

Epstein: Sam, you want to comment?

Abrams: As far as Chile is concerned, I did read the paper by Richard and others. It's a national bureau of economic research paper that came out last month. What they focused on was a major reform to the voucher system because under the Milton Friedman plan, there was topping up that was allowed. What they found was that you had more than a huge percentage of these private schools that took vouchers, were having topping up ... Forced parents to top up in order to afford them. So, what they did was, for the bottom 40% of the income distribution, those children would get a voucher worth 150%, 50% more of the value of the voucher. So, this was started in 2008 and others have followed fourth graders, they looked at their math scores over five years, and they saw not only a significant rise, but a significant convergence. But that is because of regulation. Now, the Netherlands has a huge voucher program, it goes back to 1917. It's approximately 65% of the people use it.

The teachers are unionized, they're paid on the same scale, the curriculum has to comport with national standards, you can't teach creationism in biology class. There's no topping up. Private schools, you cannot ask for more money. In Sweden, as far as the disaster is concerned, and by the way, Chile otherwise has been a disaster. An OECD report found that they have ... Since the vouchers were introduced in 1981, tremendous growth in socioeconomic segregation, the worst in the OECD. You have the same kind of white flight that's happened in the Netherlands, there's studies that show that in terms of index of dissimilarity for racial composition, that you have more segregation in schools in Dutch cities than you do in American cities. A lot of parents are sending their kids to Catholic school and Protestant schools because they know that Muslim families won't. In Sweden you have the same kind of white flight. As far as scores are concerned, in Sweden, of OECD nations, only Sweden saw its scores decline in each subject, reading, math, and science, from 2000 to 2003 to 2006 to 2009 to 2012.

In 2015, they went up a little bit, why? What's the explanation for that? In 2006 they said you can't hire uncertified teachers anymore. The teachers had to be certified and in 2011 there was a government reform that forced schools to create curricula that comported with national standards. So, it wasn't the wild open process. Now, as far as lifting the cap on charter schools, let's do what Michigan did, a disaster. John Ingle, with the support of Betsy and Dick DeVos, created the so-called wild Midwest of education, with a loosest oversight, letting parents decide. Now, in that regard, Betsy DeVos has to be considered a very loyal avatar of Milton Friedman. She is. You might not like her, and people here might like her, I disagree with her, but I have to say, she's very loyal to Milton Friedman, because she's doing just what Bob said, let the parents decide.

The problem is, you do have to have some regulation because education, and this is central to my book, is an opaque process. There's a lot of information asymmetry. It's not like buying groceries, as Milton Friedman put it in that essay for the New York Times magazine. Those are discreet good. You can decide on the convenience of the supermarket, the décor, the kindness of the people there, the prices, but the immediate consumer in education is a child, and she's not in a good position to know whether this class is being properly taught. The parent is at a necessary distance and we all know that test scores are not a good check on school quality because you can teach to the test, you can fix answers afterward, all kinds of teachers are guilty of that. Unfortunately, we saw it in Atlanta. There are real problems in Sweden, Chile, and Finland. I'm sorry, not Finland, Michigan. And even the Netherlands with segregation.

Epstein: Next question. Well, you can dress that a little bit. Go ahead and ask the question. Go ahead.

Audience Member: Okay. I'm going to try to frame this as a brief question. Isn't what the issue is, and I don't want to oversimplify it by saying that it's an issue of left versus right, because I don't think that it is, because Mr. Abrams just mentioned testing, for example, which is, in my view, an example of the right being very much for kind of a universalist viewpoint towards education that has, in many ways, failed according to a lot of different sources. What my question is, isn't one of the basic issues in American education, at least, this kind of behind of the scenes is this Dewey-esque universalism, this kind of democratic universalism, that is sort of a hope for what education should be?

This has animated much of education reform in the United States, especially on the left, and it's very much behind educational establishment, even today, that opposes this kind of particularlist viewpoint of what individual schools should be, like a charter, for example, running themselves very, at least theoretically, individually, or particularly according to what the needs of that student body are. The opposition is because of this universalism. Again, to make it not just about ideology, that where the right ... That universalism has failed.

Epstein: So, phrase your question.

Audience Member: So my question-

Bowdon: I can answer it.

Audience Member: ... is-

Epstein: Okay.

Audience Member: ... isn't that what the real is-

Epstein: Bob Bowdon wants to answer it.

Bowdon: The answer is yes. Moving on ... No, just kidding. Yes, what you call universalism I call one size fits all. Wouldn't you want to have a high school that specializes in maybe performing arts where you live, if your child is into that? Or STEM, a science and math school for focus on that. Or maybe a school for high disciplinary environment, some kids need that. Or maybe a school that emphasizes vocational skills. Or a school for autism. I've visited both a charter and private school for schools for autism and they were fantastic, and the parents loved those schools. Why wouldn't you want ... Imagine all kinds of ideas we haven't thought of yet. The virtual reality school of AI professors who will talk to your rural kid about the Higgs boson ... Yeah. I mean, there's all kinds of new innovations that can happen. So, yes, the idea that the establishment says that these one size fits all schools should be great at all these things.

It'd be like, "I want to go to a restaurant that's going to serve me every cuisine on Earth," it just doesn't exist. It's nonsense. We all know that one school can't be great at vocational skills, and great at STEM and science and math, and great at the performing arts, and the best at autism, and the best at high disciplinary environment. All these things that could possibly be. Also, responding earlier to what you said about ... You said at the end there that standardized tests aren't everything, that you can teach to the test and therefore, they can't be trusted as measures. I would apply that part of what you said to the part about Sweden's scores falling. The part about not using standardized tests-

Abrams: There's a big difference between the PISA exams and the tests we're talking about because you can't teach to PISA.

Bowdon: Well, you say that. I say that different kinds of school ... You can have a creative school that is actually not-

Abrams: You're talking about a national sample. You're talking about a national sample and the teachers aren't grading their own exams in the case of PISA-

Bowdon: No, if you have a large ... First of all, in Sweden, it was only 14% of the kids in 2012 when they were complaining about the PISA drop in scores. They weren't even in the private schools at that point, it was a small percentage of students in those scores, therefore, it's been argued that it can't be attributed, the entire country's drop in PISA scores, to just the 14% enrolled in the free schools, the schools in Sweden. Anyway, I lost track. Go ahead.

Epstein: Did you want to address the question, Sam? Or do you want to go on to another question?

Abrams: Let's go on to another question.

Epstein: Another question, please. Thank you.

Audience Member: This question will be mostly address to Mr. Abrams, he mentioned Milton Friedman earlier. Milton Friedman goes into detail about a certain moral aspect that's been lacking in this debate so far. If we can agree that there's room to disagree about how effective a school choice program will work or a purely public administrated education system would work, wouldn't the presumption, generally, be in favor of liberty? Unless the clear case could be made for public administration of education. Milton Friedman, after all, drew a hard line between justifying public funding of education on liberal principles versus publicly administering education on liberal principles.

So, the question basically is, if we can agree that all things being equal, there should be a presumption in favor of liberty? If we can agree that all other things being equal, there should be a presumption in favor of a parent's moral choice in how their kids are educated, as opposed to the state's choice in how kids should be education.

Epstein: Thank you for the question. Quickly, Sam, you want to comment? I guess Bob can comment, too.

Abrams: Well, first of all, there's a lot of choice within the public school system, especially if you're in an urban area. Even within schools there's a lot of choice for different programs. As far as the role of government in education, regarding Freedman's argument, you have to have a referee on the field, just as you do to prevent coercion and protect free markets. It can't be some completely laissez-faire game, which is what Betsy DeVos has really been about.

It does explain the problems in Michigan where you have loose oversight. It's true in Sweden, too, with the loose oversight. I've spent a good deal of time in Sweden and the penultimate chapter in my book reflects that. I'm not sure, beyond that, the parent certainly has voice, the parent has a role, but teachers are professionals, we might know a lot of bad teachers, we might know a lot of bad school administrators, but there is a craft to teaching that is highly honed. I think we have to respect that.

Epstein: Do you want to comment, Bob?

Bowdon: Yeah, sure. I was going to say, too, about Michigan and about the general idea of regulation. Nobody in this space says there should be zero regulations at all, that's a straw man. I mentioned all these states with statewide voucher programs like North Carolina, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, none of them have no regulation. You can't just say, yeah, I'm going to open ... It's called the Bob Bowdon Clown School and just give me money. Then no one checks and I don't actually have a school and all the money actually is just really going to go to tequila and hookers, because there's no school at all. There's no unregulated market like that. The idea that this is being described as what we can't do, is something no one is proposing. With respect to charter school regulatory frameworks, I'm not a huge fan of the Michigan style of charter school regulation, but they can learn from it, they can evolve, they can change and grow.

So, the point is, is generally choice is good. Even in some of those places. I have something on Detroit if I can find it in my notes, of what a disaster the public schools are there. They just arrested a bunch of people in Detroit for a fraud scheme. We're talking about some of these schools where half the kids don't graduate and we're worried about the performance of charter schools graded on a different basis, giving a pass to the chronically failing district schools. I've got to tell you, some of these schools, and I've been in some, they have fights every day, and gangs, and drugs, and Bloods, and Crypts, and guns, and knives, and some of these places are hell holes.

You could say to this parent in Michigan, "Ah, but we've studied your charter school selection and it's just not up to par based on a national standard or it's scores on the NATE." They'll say, "Yeah, and my kid isn't getting his ass kicked every day." This is real life we're talking about here. Again, I think to ... You don't know these people's live and to go in an decide for them is wrong.

Epstein: Next question.

Audience Member: Hi, this question is for Bob. Now, let's say we already agree with your normative argument, your constitutional argument, even your policy argument, which I do, actually. Let's say you're talking about all these states like North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, who have partial programs and let's say that at the end of the day, we want the full scale program, which you've been hinting about through all. There was one time this was actually on the ballot, it was in the early 90's in California, proposition 174, and this is a program that was endorsed by both the Hoover Institutions, Conservative Libertarian types, and this was what's really problematic and my question's really empirical. You have a different kind of coalition, you have free market types, liberty kind of types, and minority parents, and things like that, and that's not usually a coalition that aligns together.

In prop 174, what you saw was it was a very close at the beginning, prop 174 for people who don't know it, allowed people to choose in California, before California dramatically realigned. This is like the California that was still in play for both Republicans and Democrats, sort of. Allowed people to choose private, public, or parochial schools, and kind of allowed that funding to go to the parent, the parent could choose. This was widely endoresed by people like Terry Moe at Stanford, everybody kind of who's on your side. Yet, kind of a lot of the business community, the free market types and stuff, abandoned it with the last month or so, and it went down pretty hard.

At the end of the day, a lot of what you're talking about empirically looks like, while it may be good as a normative matter, a policy matter, even constitutional matter, and every other sort of way, it sort of seems very difficult to enact, just because it gets demagogued. People like their good public schools in states like New Jersey, or California, or here in New York. How would you respond actually the realities and the empirics on the ground about the situation that we have today?

Audience Member: Surprise, surprise, the states that are the 25 non right to work states are states where teachers have no consent of having money taken from their paychecks, those happen to be the states with huge union political campaign contributions, and they buy off politicians to support the policies that stop and impeded school choice. There's a direct correlation. The UFT alone, I don't remember if I said this already, $182 million last year in just the New York City Teacher's Union, they have 65 people making over $150,000 in just the teacher's union.

So, look, that said, there are places where we are still ... We never go backwards, in both charters and private school choice movement, we always go forwards. So, in some places, you would never think ... Michigan went right to work, who would have guessed that? Same with Wisconsin. We're winning. I take your point, we're not winning as fast as I want and that's why I do this work. There are millions of kids who don't feel like they're winning because they're zoned in some of these horrible schools, but we never go backwards and each year a few more programs around the country get added. You can count them and that's what gives me hope.

Epstein: You want to comment, Sam? Or do you want to go to the next question?

Abrams: Let's go to the next question.

Epstein: Okay, next question.

Audience Member: Thank you. Gene, I swear, I have a question, but I just want to say Samuel, I'm a Kindle guy, but I think I'm going to buy your book because I don't think there's anything your book doesn't have a chapter on. There might be a paragraph on me, I wouldn't be surprised.

Abrams: My wife is listening. It took me seven years.

Audience Member: Okay. Just something that hasn't been touched on, but I'm sure you guys have discussed it in your work. It's always said that the expansion of choice or vouchers would be, in fact, a defunding of public schools. This is often framed as one of the worst things that could happen. Then the opposition just says, "Well, it's just dollars following students." So, if that's the case, then it's not a problem. Something in my brain says, well, it's perhaps a bit more complex than that as things often are with these complex issues. I'm just wondering if each of you could just dive into this a little bit and really get to the heart of it.

Epstein: With money leaving the system when people go to vouchers.

Audience Member: Are those accurate characterizations? Is it a defunding of public schools or is it just simply dollars following students? If that's the case, what's the problem? The dollars are following the students.

Abrams: No, it's a great question. I don't have a chapter on that. Yeah, it would have taken me eight years. Probably would have gotten divorced.

Bowdon: But the part about him is terrific.

Abrams: What's that?

Bowdon: The chapter on him is terrific.

Abrams: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, a three sport athlete, prom king, all the rest. The problem is, this is a technical economic question. It concerns fixed costs and variable costs. You're right, that you would just think the money follows the student, but you have to have a certain amount of money to keep the lights on and keep central administration on. Once the money leaves and follows the student, you have that much less money to spend per pupil for other students in the system because there has to be a certain amount of money allocated to the fixed costs for running a school. It's a simple technical question. I will note, though, because this keeps coming up, about tuition tax credits and a lot of people will say that tuition tax credits, which are vouchers by a different name, that the originators of tuition tax credits, and this is a fascinating aspect of this whole school choice debate.

The founder, the creators, of tuition tax credits, one of them is a guy named John Huppenthal, a senator in Arizona, and their tuition tax credit system goes back quite far. He said, "This has turned into something so close to vouchers, you almost can't tell the difference." Trent Front is a colleague of his said, "Why do we need vouchers at this point?" Now, I should explain, the way tuition tax credits work, for example in Florida, you have a corporate tuition tax credit system with two scholarship funds. It was $500 million last year, it can go up 20%, so it will be $600 million this year, and you get a dollar for dollar tax credit and then that money goes into a pool and funds attendance at school. So, you have about 100,000 students this past year in Florida, and this is why Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump went to a Catholic school in Orlando, because this is what this kind of tuition tax credit system is funding. The tuition tax credits transmute into vouchers.

The bigger issue that we haven't addressed apropos Catholic education is indoctrination. Milton Friedman would say, and so many others, "Jeez, you can use a Pell Grant, a Stafford loan, to go to Fordham and not Fordham, but not Fordham Prep, or Usheva University, but not Manhattan Talmudical Academy." The point is that you're an adult when you're going to university, not when you're in primary and secondary school, just as John Paul Stevens made precisely this point in his dissent against vouchers in Zelman versus Simmons-Harris for the Cleveland voucher program. So that's very important to keep in mind.

Epstein: Thanks. I'm afraid we're out of time. I'm afraid, Bob, if you want to comment on the question, you'll have to take some of your five minutes of summation.

Bowdon: I don't want to do that.

Epstein: Bob, it's the rules, we have to obey the clock. Bob, please take the podium-

Bowdon: All right.

Epstein: ... and give us your five minutes of summation. Sorry, these guys will be around, you can ask them your questions informally, that's part of the best part of the evening. Meanwhile, think about how you're going to vote as each of them summarizes. Bob, five minutes to summarize.

Bowdon: All right. I'd like to thank Gene and Dr. Abrams for participating. Also, the America's worst mom, I'd like to give a shout out to her and good luck in the international competition representing the country coming up. I've devoted a large chunk of my career to furthering freedom in education, as you might have figured out. By the way, also, Choice Media, we have what's called a new smart phone app, it's the only one in the country, and we sell it for the low, low price of free and you get it by searching Choice Media on your phone.

So, what have we got here? We have a system that is very corrupt. Just in yesterday's New York Daily News, New York City hopes to shrink what's called the absent teacher reserve. That's teachers who lack permanent assignments, you know how many there are? 822 in the city, teachers without assignments, this was during last school year, costing the district an estimate $100,000 per year for each of them, each 822. This is the monopoly that we have. Teacher's unions taking money out of teacher's salaries in 25 states, whether they like it or not, and that is wrong. An example of what unions do is like last year, the Chicago teacher's union wanted a provision in its contract to stop all charter school growth, and you know what? Rahm Emanuel signed it, they got that four year moratorium. This, in a district with fewer than 75%, not even three in four kids graduating from high school, they guarantee no matter how good a proposal is, not matter how many thousands of parents want a new charter school in Chicago, it will not open because the unions got that in their contract negotiation.

Now, let's say you're in Chicago and let's say you send your kid to Hope High, which has a 3% math proficiency, and you might have noticed some news about your school, which came out in a story called the 20 worst schools in the country, something like that. You read the union stops charter school growth, what do you think about that? Maybe test scores don't mean anything to you, but how about something posted in GreatSchools.org from a teacher, I'm just reading what's there, I don't know the person, this is what's posted about that school, "This is by far the worst school I've ever been in, the children fight, curse, listen to music, talk on their cell phones all day. I haven't seen one student doing any productive work. The teachers don't discipline the children, the children run the school, the principal receives a paycheck for nothing.

The parents at Hope High school, how much hope do they have? How glad are they that these new options have stopped? No matter how good the proposals might be." That's what we have with this system and it's in America today. 59% of black American males graduate from high school and those are our countrymen. I say enough of this system. It's hurting millions of kids. Enough with the US scoring 37th in the world in math, enough with 34% of our kids proficient in reading according to the NATE, enough with using money, enough with taking money out of the pockets of teachers whether they like it or not in 25 states. Enough with teacher tenure being spun as due process when we all know what it really is, near infinite process. Enough with paying a great, brilliant hard to find AP math, physics, or chemistry teacher, less than a terrible teacher because the terrible teacher has one added year of seniority, which is crazy. Enough claiming what the school choice movement is, that it's really about greedy, nefarious billionaires.

When individual parents make a choice for a charter or a voucher school, and they don't make one penny when they make that choice, that's the reality of it. Enough with saying school choice programs are taking money from the beleaguered poor district schools, as if the charter and voucher schools broke in through a bathroom window at two in the morning and stole it from the district, as if the district made that money and it's theirs. It's not. It's taxpayer money paid to get children educated in the most efficient way possible. So, I say enough with what the system is wrought, it's a bloated, big brother, top-down, job protecting, money wasting, politician bribing, parent ignoring, child indoctrinating, modernization resistant, one size fits all, hegemonic cartel, which traditionally uses children as props to protect teachers' jobs. Which is terrible for good teachers because they're treated like cogs in the collective. The next time a 10th grade girls is crying to me on camera-

Epstein: 30 second.

Bowdon: ... about the fact that she's vicious and relentlessly bullied every day and no one has done anything about it. Instead of worrying about her suicide, I want to tell her about a new school choice program that will, to use her term, give her a second chance at life. Because she doesn't have to be a statistic and just because she's in a school that's zoned with relatively good scores, she doesn't have to be a victim anymore.

Epstein: Thank you, Bob.

Abrams: I also want to thank Gene and Bob, this has been engaging. Bob, I think your personifying Leo Durocher. Your passion's impressive, but I think you're titling at windmills and getting all heated up about the wrong problem. You're absolutely right, I'm not going to disagree with you about the bureaucratic pathology, I'm not going to disagree with you about the overprotection of underperforming teachers. I've read about the 822 teachers in the absent teacher reserve, is that what it's called?

Abrams: Yeah, yep. There are about 80,000 teachers in the system and it's not to take away that we're talking about 1%, it shouldn't be the case, you're absolutely right. Let's, again, the bigger picture, I think is what we have to look at here apropo Casey Stengel, in terms of keeping the roof up, and not yelling, and getting everybody out in time before it caves in. As far as the United States finishing 37th in math, et cetera, again, we're number one in childhood poverty. You talked about underperforming school systems, I don't want to be a Marxist determinist here, and you don't have to be, but poverty matters a great deal. Paul Tough essentially did 180 degree turn, unfortunately, reviewers didn't grasp this. His book, How Children Succeed, was a celebration essentially of the culture critique of poverty, of grit, that we have to teach this kind of moral toughness, and that's what will get you through the day.

Three years later, he wrote another book called Helping Children Succeed. He went from How Children Succeed to Helping Children Succeed. It really constituted a 180 degree turn because ... It didn't get the attention it should have because what Paul Tough did in Helping Children Succeed, is he said, "You know what? I'm wrong. It's not about cultivating this new approach to success, it's actually about pediatric problems in terms of poverty at very early ages and how difficult it is to mature and grow as a student." The fact of the matter is, these kids, and I had a little brother in the Big Brother program for a long time, he mustered more grit in getting to school every day in the Frederick Douglas Housing Project, than any kid who went through Scarsdale, and then Yale, and Harvard Medical School. So, the exhaustion involved in that.

So, childhood poverty, we're ignoring it and that is just fundamental. As far as what we can do to improve education, you said that we spend much more than other countries for education. It's wrong. The OECD reports the per people expenditure in grades one through 12, but what the OECD does not report is how much do these other countries spend on maternity/paternity leave? In Finland, you get 100% of your salary for three months and the 70% for six months on top of that. That's the mother. The father gets 100% for three months, I believe. This works in a lot of other countries. That's an educational expenditure. So is in preschool, through one through six, that's not in the education budgets of those countries, so aren't the music and art programs after school that are not part of the budget. If you take a look, we're not spending, actually, more.

Aback of the envelope calculation would say that actually these countries are spending much more on education. As far as educational quality is concerned, you're really talking about inner city under performance in general, there's no public school problem in Brookline, or Scarsdale, or Bethesda. There are no charter schools there, you don't live there and send your kid to a private school, it defeats the purpose of living there. We know what does work. James Heckman, the Nobel economist, said there's no better investment of public money than in high quality preschool with college educated teachers. We have longitudinal data going back to 1962 regarding that. It's about grade repetition, it's about teenage pregnancy, it's about employment, all of these different cognitive, socio-cognitive effects. We have a great deal of data on class size-

Epstein: 30 seconds, Sam.

Abrams: Okay. Student teacher achievement ratio study done in Tennessee from 1985 to 1989, the percentage of students who are in the treatment group, with smaller classes, with fewer classmates, graduated from high school at a much higher rate. These things cost money. The wraparound services, dental visits, after school programs where you have dental, optical, psychiatric help. All of these things cost money. We're not looking at this problem with our eyes wide open and that's what I encourage us to do.

Epstein: Thank you, Sam. Okay. The proposition reads, parents should have the choice to opt out of public schools and redirect the taxpayer tuition money for their children to other approved schools or educational options. Bob Bowdon has been arguing for the affirmative, Sam Abrams has been arguing for the negative. You who voted on the first round, please vote on the second round. While the voting is happening, again, Sam will be selling his book, it's about $10 off the Amazon price, so take advantage of it. The books will be signed, you'll get a chance to talk to Sam afterwards, as well. Bob Bowdon, Choice Media, again it's Choice Media-

Epstein: ... smartphone app, it's a smartphone app, Choice Media is Bob Bowdon's smartphone app. After you leave here, just down the street, restaurant, free glass of wine, not just tonight, but any night, say the magic words, Soho Forum, you'll have a free glass of win with a meal. All of those goodies available for you if you come to the Soho Forum. Please come again. Please look at our website, we're having a debate in September on medical care, in October there will be a debate on, I forget what, but I'll look it up. What?

Epstein: Okay. All right. Yes, vote was initially 60% and Bob Bowdon went up to 61%. So, he picked up one percentage point. The no vote was 20% and Sam Abrams went up to 31%. So, Sam wins the tootsie roll, congratulations.

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.

  • Jahn Ghalt||

    No transcript? Doubt the negative had compelling reasons to short-circuit parent's prerogatives with their children's education, but I'd like to READ THEM

  • Warren||

    Lenore Skenazy has been giving the exact same speech (word for word) for the past eight years.
    She needs to not be invited anymore.

  • Bubba Jones||

    MY BODY MY CHOICE

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: Is School Choice Good for Kids? Listen to Last Night's Debate.

    Of course not.
    Only the children of our ruling elitist turds should have the right to go to private schools to become well educated. Otherwise, the children of the untermenschen may discover just how much our socialist masters are fucking us all. Then a possible counter-revolution may occur.
    No one wants that.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Abrams took the negative.

    I'll have to listen to the debate later, but it appears Abrams is for school choice as well, that choice merely being made by other people.

  • Aloysious||

    Is School Choice Good for Kids?

    No. They should be exposed to force and coercion like every other serf prole comrade.

    How else are they going to learn to bend the knee respect and obey authority follow orders?

  • ssgcmw||

    If I can use my G.I. Bill money at a private college, then parents should be able to use money the taxpayers are allotting to educate their kids at a private k-12 school.

  • MadiganM||

    I didn't have the opportunity to listen it, so, first of all, thank you for the transcript. It is really important to speak about negative things. Only doing this we can turn them into positive. I have not encountered this problem before, but as i understand this situation now, i would teach my children in a private school. With all its pros and cons, it is still the best option. Yes, There is a money problem, but i`m sure that those, who can solve it, should go to private schools. Check this great article that completely describes this situation. I work for Writingdaddy.com writing services so i always in touch with students. That`s also why i`m sure that private schools are much better. Every student who studied at a private school and in the public school will tell you about it.

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