I’m writing to express my dismay at the decision to publish James Harvey’s article “Privatization: A Drain on Public Schools” (December 2011/January 2012) with no counterpoint commentary. Harvey’s article is short on meaningful
data and long on rhetoric that distorts the position of school
choice advocates, promoting fear and misinformation instead
of thoughtful debate and discussion.
The first failure of Harvey’s argument is his suggestion that,
because education is a public good, school choice options
like charters and vouchers must be bad. But Harvey makes
no effort to explain why the only way to deliver public goods
is through government-run schools. This is like saying that
because health is a public good, only government-run hospitals can provide;it.
As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the;Cleveland voucher program was constitutional
because the money provided for educational vouchers followed the student. The public good of education can be provided with government support; that doesn’t mean that only
government agents can deliver the service. Just as veterans
may use the G.I. Bill to pay for tuition at private colleges and
patients may use Medicare or Medicaid at private hospitals,
education is indeed a public good that does not require a
state-run monopoly for schools.
Harvey cites data suggesting that achievement of students
in charter schools and voucher programs isn’t consistently
School Choice Distorted
higher than their counterparts in traditional public schools.
But school choice advocates do not suggest that every charter
or private school will naturally do a better job. Like every
entrepreneurial enterprise, some will succeed, and others will
fail. The difference is that if families are;dissatisfied with the
education their child receives in a charter or private school,
they may exercise the option to enroll elsewhere. Poor families without school choice options have no such opportunity,
and if their local public school is failing, their children must
fail with it.
The most disheartening aspect of Harvey’s article was his
characterization of school choice advocates as libertarians
obsessed with private property (and, we may infer, devoid of
interest in human beings—as if those two things are mutually
exclusive), or perhaps worse. Harvey equates choice advocates
with the ruthless Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. Such comparisons are not only inaccurate (choice advocates do not believe
vouchers and charters are a quick fix that will cure all of education’s ills), but also inflammatory, misleading, and unfair.
Harvey’s article distorts the message of school choice proponents and derails the chances of a meaningful public debate
over the topic.
Gary Houchens is associate professor in the Department of
Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research at the
College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Western
Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
School Choice, A Fix That Fails
Gary Houchens ignores the research I presented, glosses over the distinction between funding of schools and other public services, and misses the point of the Mao
With respect to the research on charters, it is not a case
of “some will succeed and some will fail.” It is a case of only
17 percent being better than public schools. As I explain in
the article, a landmark study from a pro-charter think tank
concluded that 83;percent of charters are either worse than or
no better than public schools. Meanwhile, in case after case,
vouchers have not delivered on their promise of improved