In an effort to find common political ground on the vexing issue of public school reform, The Nation passes on to its readers a set of provocative proposals from Ron K. Unz. A conservative Republican who ran in the 1994 primary against California Governor Pete Wilson, Unz campaigned strongly against that year’s anti-immigrant Prop 187. Last year he sponsored the controversial Prop 227, which abolished bilingual education in California, and recently he wrote a new initiative aimed at moderate campaign finance reform. Now he’s calling for a negotiated right/left truce on education, one in which both sides would have to relinquish parts of their historic agendas. We hope this editorial, which reflects Unz’s personal views, will generate a healthy and vigorous debate.
According to many polls, education reform tops voter concerns. Our public schools do have serious problems, and improving them should be a bipartisan effort. Unfortunately, among conservatives “educational reform” has lately become almost a synonym for “school choice,” whether through vouchers, charter schools or some other variation. And a significant cohort of liberals and reform Democrats is beginning to move toward such ideas.
Partly, this consideration of vouchers may result from the deep pessimism of reformers: If years of effort have failed to improve public education substantially, perhaps the task is simply impossible, and the system should be “blown up” or at least have enough holes knocked in it to allow frustrated parents to flee with their children to private or charter schools. Vouchers are popular among the right because they have strong ideological appeal to disparate but powerful elements of the conservative movement, ranging from libertarians (who often seem to worship the free market and competition as being axiomatically beneficial in any policy area) to religious conservatives (who eagerly seek public funding for their religious and parochial schools). But an objective examination of “school choice” raises serious doubts about the entire concept.
Our worldwide educational rivals almost universally rely upon the sort of government school system that is allegedly responsible for our own educational failings. In fact, public education in most other countries is far more centralized and government controlled, with less local flexibility and free choice than our own. If traditional government schools seem to work well everywhere else, perhaps they can be made to work here; on the other hand, vouchers would constitute a radical leap into the unknown.
Moreover, though voucher advocates argue that competition would inevitably lead to the triumph of good schools over bad because of the “magic of the marketplace,” this seems far from obvious. The success or failure of a given public school program is very difficult to quantify objectively, and most working parents cannot devote endless time to researching the matter.
In fact, it is easy to imagine that the schools that would win the competitive struggle for parental dollars would be those that invested most heavily in advertising and public relations and least heavily in academic content, as is often the case in the vaunted private sector. The actual physical content of most colas or sneakers is almost indistinguishable, but the Coke and Nike brands reign supreme because of massive spending on public image-making and celebrity endorsements. Although fine for the soft drink industry, this is not a desirable model for our public education system under market competition.
Finally, the gravest danger for widespread school choice is rarely explicitly raised by either side of the debate. Unlike most other nations around the world, which are relatively homogenous in culture and race, we have just a few social institutions that bind our diversity together, and one of the most important has been a unified public school system. Under vouchers, there is a very real possibility that substantial portions of our most vulnerable populations will be drawn into Nation of Islam schools or a variety of ethnic-nationalist ideologies, which could have a lethal effect upon our already fraying social cohesion. This is not mere speculation. It is an underreported fact that Polly Williams of Milwaukee, hero of the conservative voucher movement, until recently served as a “colonel” in a local black militia that around the time of the Gulf War threatened to become a violent fifth column on behalf of Saddam Hussein.
As a conservative who is deeply skeptical of vouchers, I regret seeing all too many members of the left play into the hands of public education’s foes by stubbornly defending the indefensible in our current schools.
For example, liberals claim that lack of money is responsible for education problems, despite the fact that school spending has risen enormously, even as our schools have deteriorated. Over the thirty years between 1960 and 1990, per capita student spending in California rose almost 150 percent above inflation even as its schools went from being among America’s best to among its worst. Today, the District of Columbia has nearly the highest per student spending in the country and nearly the lowest test scores, while states that spend the least, like North Dakota, achieve very good results. Most private schools spend only a small fraction of what public ones do but achieve fine results, often with those very “at risk” students–urban poor, minorities, immigrants–used to explain away public school failure.
The problem isn’t what schools lack but what they possess in abundance, namely half-baked educational fads produced by elite educational theorists. The list is quite long: whole language, bilingual education, inventive spelling, “fuzzy” math, constructivist science, endless self-esteem programs and other wrongheaded pedagogical experiments. According to numerous studies, this educational machinery produces students with the highest self-esteem but the lowest academic test scores of any of their global peers.
Thus, likely solutions to our educational problems reside more in subtracting than in adding. Instead of more money, more teachers, more programs or more days of schooling, we should be reducing as much of the burdensome nonsense in public schools as possible. If a straightforward academic curriculum seems to work reasonably well in nearly every other major nation, the burden of proof is on those who say it can’t possibly be tried in America’s unique society.
For these reasons, I might suggest the outlines of a bipartisan truce in the ideological wars over education: If the left will agree to scour the public schools clean of many failed educational programs (which for the most part have no obvious connection to any left tradition), the right might agree to stop its dogged efforts to turn our public schools over to ideological zealots or the marketing division from Nike. And for a change, children could actually begin to get a decent education in America.