More than Choice

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

At a recent book forum at the American Enterprise Institute, AEI scholar Frederick Hess argued that education reform should move beyond whole-school conceptions of school choice and focus on the dynamics of “supply.”

“Now, like I just said previously, opening new schools is only one part of the solution but they’re a useful part of the solution and they’re an important part of the solution but choice doesn’t tell you anything about what’s gonna happen to the supply,” said Hess, discussing his new book Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling.

He criticized the current climate, which, he argues, encourages education entrepreneurs to go found a charter school rather than invent something new.

He also noted at the lecture that school reforms at the district level happen often but teachers wait them out. “A decade ago, in a book titled Spinning Wheels, I reported that the typical urban school district had launched at least 13 major reforms in a three-year span during the 1990s—a new reform every three months!” he writes in Education Unbound.

Hess compared public schools today with General Motors and post-Gorbachev Russia. “If you think about when President Obama last year approved the federal takeover of General Motors, it wasn’t like President Obama’s economics team had any particularly unique insights into the problem of General Motors,” he said. “Everybody, everybody knew General Motors’ problems and the not-so-secret truth is everybody had known General Motors’ problems for thirty years.”

“None of [the problems were] new and it wasn’t that GM didn’t know what the problem was,” he argued, continuing, “It’s that GM’s leadership was hamstrung.”

He continued, saying,

“…So it’s not that they didn’t know what the problem was, that it was policies and contracts and culture, the problem is that knowing what the problem is is different from being able to change practice and in schooling too often, I want to suggest that we focus on trying to find the right practice and spend remarkably little time thinking about how tough it is to get those practices to work.”

“If markets are dysfunctional, corrupt, or inhospitable to law-abiding enterprises (think of post-Gorbachev Russia), they are more likely to lead to venality than socially productive work,” writes Hess on his blog on April 14. He later writes that “it’s not necessarily the case that vouchers, in and of themselves, substantially change incentives all that much.”

“In Milwaukee, I’d argue that the dearth of nontraditional or for-profit providers is merely one piece of evidence that the incentives for providers have not changed all that much.”

Gene Carter of ACSD, introducing Hess at AEI, described the book as “a ‘no holds barred’ representation of a view towards school improvement.” “Our goal in publishing Education Unbound was simply to create a catalyst for conversation and change,” said Carter.

In his lecture Hess pushed for additional resources in support of entrepreneurial education innovators. “So, with that I just want to suggest that…[what] this book focuses on that is the notion that when you find your greenshoots, your Citizen Schools, your Wireless Generations, your School Nets, your Achievement Firsts, your Rocket Ships, what you don’t want to do is leave them to fend for themselves,” he said at AEI. “You don’t want to leave them in post-Gorbachev Russia” but instead “… put them in a position where you’re stacking the odds that they’ll succeed, where you’re shaving the odds or you’re knocking down barriers or you’re providing resources, where you’re helping them get their hands on talent…”

“In general, I think school vouchers and charter schools are good things but I think when we talk about school choice we’ve made a number of huge mistakes,” Hess said.  “The biggest mistake is we’ve somehow imagined that choice is a solution.”

“Markets are not a solution. Choice is not a solution,” he later added. “Even Milton Friedman famously said that the market is not a cow to be milked.”

“Markets are nothing more, choices are nothing more than mechanisms for channeling human energy and ingenuity,” he argued.

In Milton Friedman’s 1989 essay, “Using the Market for Social Development” (pdf), published by the CATO Institute, the free market economist writes that “In some ways, referring to ‘the market’ puts the discussion on the wrong basis. The market is not a cow to be milked; neither is it a sure-fire cure for all ills.”

Rather, Friedman argued,

“The market is a mechanism that may be mobilized for any number of purposes. … Using or not using the market is not the crucial distinction. Every society, whether communist, socialist, social democratic, or capitalist, uses the market. Rather, the crucial distinction is private property or no private property.”

“Who are the participants in the market and on whose behalf are they operating?” he asks.

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.


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