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Can School Choice Save Schools?

Think Tank Transcripts: School Choice

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen, recipient ofthe Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology, improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.


Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation andthe Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.


MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Just listen to this.Are Bill Clinton and Bob Dole really agreeing?


PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From videotape.) We must give parents, allparents, the right to choose which public school their children willattend.


BOB DOLE (GOP Presidential Candidate): From videotape.) There isno reason why those who live on any street in America should not havethe same right as the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,the right to send your child to the school of your choice.


MR. WATTENBERG: It may sound as if they are agreeing, but they arenot agreeing. They are saying very different things, as we shall see.


Joining us to sort through the conflict and consensus about schoolchoice are: Jane Hannaway, director of education policy at the UrbanInstitute, professor of education at Stanford University, andco-author of 'Decentralization and Education: Can We Fulfill thePromise?'; Terry Moe, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution,professor of political science at Stanford University, and co-authorof 'Politics, Markets and America's Schools'; Jeffrey Henig, directorof the Center for Washington Area Studies, political scienceprofessor at George Washington University, and author of 'RethinkingSchool Choice: Limits of the Market Metaphor'; and Paul Peterson,director of the Center for American Political Studies at HarvardUniversity and co-author of a new study entitled, 'The Effectivenessof School Choice in Milwaukee.'


The question before this house: Can school choice save schools?This week on 'Think Tank.'


The American laboratory for school choice is Milwaukee, Wisconsin.We at 'Think Tank' have been talking to the important players there.Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, a Democrat, supports Milwaukee'scontroversial new school voucher program.


MAYOR JOHN NORQUIST (D-Milwaukee, WI): (From videotape.) I mean,just listen to people talk. 'Well, it might hurt the system if we hadschool choice. People might choose to take their kids away from thesystem.' Like the system is the only thing that matters. I mean,that's the way bureaucrats in Czechoslovakia were talking 10 yearsago.


MR. WATTENBERG: Milwaukee is the 15th largest school district inthe country, with all of the usual problems of America's urban schoolsystems. The city increased school spending by 82 percent in constantdollars between 1973 and 1993. Yet its graduation rate dropped from79 percent to 44 percent.


After fierce political and legal battles, Governor Tommy Thompsonand the state legislature passed the Milwaukee Parental ChoiceProgram. Milwaukee now offers low-income parents a voucher worthroughly $3,000 to send their children to any private, non-religiousschool that will accept them.


It sounds great on paper, but some critics see a slippery slope.Elliott Mincberg of People for the American Way is fightingMilwaukee's school choice program in court.


ELLIOTT MINCBERG (People for the American Way): (From videotape.)And you're harming the public schools because every dollar that goesinto the voucher program is a dollar less that goes into theMilwaukee public schools.


MR. WATTENBERG: However, a new report already under heavy fire,co-written by one of our panelists, Paul Peterson, concludes that theprogram in Milwaukee is successful. The report says studentperformance has improved and that the program is popular withparents.


Lady and gentlemen on two coasts, thank you for joining us. Let usgo around this expanded room very quickly to get a brief position onwhere you all stand, starting with you, Terry Moe, out at the HooverInstitution in Palo Alto, California. Is school choice a good thing?


MR. MOE: I think choice is a crucial idea in educational reform.It gives parents the right to make decisions about where their kidsare going to go to school, to find the right schools for their kids.It gives public schools incentives to provide kids with the bestpossible education because they can no longer take kids and money forgranted. And it allows poor and minority students who are trapped inthe worst schools in this country options, opportunities to get outand find better schools for themselves.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Paul Peterson, Harvard University, now out,sitting out in the studio at Hoover Institution, your view, please.


MR. PETERSON: Ben, my view is that we now know from Milwaukee thatschool choice seems to be working. Students in their third and fourthyears are learning more if they're in the choice program, and we'vegot data from a randomized experiment that really is amethodologically pretty sound way of showing that.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Here in Washington, in the studio with us,Jane Hannaway.


MS. HANNAWAY: We don't know. We don't know. It's a very riskymove, and we have exceedingly little evidence about its effects. Andin addition, there are good reasons to think a market model would notwork well in education, but the bottom line is we don't know.



MR. HENIG: Well, I agree with Jane. I think choice carefullyframed, carefully regulated, carefully monitored can be a useful toolfor public officials in terms of shaking up systems and bringingabout change. But there are serious risks, and I'm very wary of thenotion of throwing out matters to the market, crossing our fingersand hoping that the results are for the best.


MR. WATTENBERG: All right, let's pursue that word 'the market.'Terry, I think you helped introduce that. Why don't you tell us whatwe're talking about when we say a market in education?


MR. MOE: Well, there are different ways to allow markets to work,but basically what we're doing is we're allowing parents to choose toget out of bad schools, to seek out good schools and to express theirdemand for schools in a way that they can't when all parents aresimply assigned to schools and the local public schools have amonopoly.


On the supply side, I think it's necessary to allow new schools topop up and to allow schools that no one wants to go to to die down sothat you have dynamics on both the supply and the demand side.


Now, all of this is couched within a framework of basic governmentrules, so it's not a free market model.


MR. WATTENBERG: Isn't the argument now, sharpened particularly bythe two presidential candidates, is whether that choice should extendto private schools as well as public schools, and within thatcontext, should it extend not just to any private school, but toreligious and parochial schools as well?


MR. PETERSON: The situation in Cleveland is such now that they'regoing to try that with religious schools and we'll have a chance tofind out whether or not a voucher arrangement can work includingreligious schools. In Milwaukee, it was just secular schools. Whetherit's secular or religious, you can really create a sense ofcommunity, and it's my feeling that that's more important than themarket metaphor.


I know Terry likes the market metaphor, and I don't disagree withit, but I think the sense of community that you can create in aprivate school is really what makes the choice idea -- at leastthat's what the Milwaukee experience seems to say.


MR. WATTENBERG: Jane was furrowing her brow. Would you like to --


MS. HANNAWAY: Well, I think Terry talked a little bit about thesupply side problem. Where are these schools are going to come fromand how are they going to be regulated? And I think the regulation ofthose schools could be extremely important. We don't know where theseschools are going to come from. We don't know the bases on whichthey're going to compete. We aren't sure who can and who cannot starta school. Could David Koresh start a school if we allow religiousschools to operate? Where do you draw the line?


MR. MOE: All choice proponents that I know would favor a system ofrules that would eliminate the possibility of David Koresh and peoplelike that starting up schools. What you would do is you would set ofrequirements that no school could qualify for public funds if itteaches hate, if it teaches illegal activities, if it teaches anykind of discrimination, if it engages in indoctrination, and so on.


MR. WATTENBERG: Wait a minute. Except for the last one,indoctrination, as I understand the Koresh story, he didn't violateany of the first three.


MR. MOE: Well, if he violates any of those, he wouldn't be able toset up a school.


MR. WATTENBERG: But indoctrination, I mean what is a RomanCatholic school if it's not --


MR. MOE: I don't think this kind of thing is going to turn out tobe a problem in practice. I mean, if you look at the private schoolsystem now, you don't have a lot of David Koresh schools out there,schools run by witches or other fanatical groups. Parents don't wantto send their kids to those kinds of schools, and when you have abasic system of rules that are enforced, you're going to eliminate 99percent of the other problems.


MS. HANNAWAY: But Terry, we have very few private schools outthere, and part of the motivation for having a choice plan is togenerate a greater supply of those private schools.


MR. MOE: Yeah, that's true.


MS. HANNAWAY: So we only have about 10 percent of the schools outthere now, at the most, that are private.


MR. MOE: That's right, so we set up a framework of rules and allowpeople to start up schools. It's the rules that are crucial instructuring the kinds of schools that we get.


Let me respond to one other point, about Jane's complaint that wedon't really know what kinds of schools are going to pop up. I thinkthat's a good thing. I mean, what you want is a kind of dynamism, aninnovation that we don't have now from the public sector. We wantschools for math and science and schools for the humanities andschools for disadvantaged kids and schools for gifted kids and allkinds of different schools. And schools are going to sprout up inresponse to the kinds of demands that people have.


And it's good that there's a certain unpredictability to it. It'sexciting and it's important.


MR. PETERSON: But we do know some things. In Cleveland, forexample, we've got 46 schools participating in the choice programthat's just been put into effect. Many of them are Catholic schools,and we would have to say that initially, if we begin this program, alot of minority students in our central cities will be attendingCatholic schools who now are not attending Catholic schools. Andthere's a lot of evidence out there that minority children learn morein a Catholic school than they do in a public school.


MS. HANNAWAY: I think the Catholic schools, Paul, are a completelydifferent situation. The Catholic schools have been around for over150 years. These are well established schools. People know whatthey're buying. We're talking about a new school just sprouting up onthe corner, supported with public money. We have no idea what thatschool is going to be supporting, what values it's going to beespousing.


MR. PETERSON: Let's look at what's actually happening out there.What's actually happening in Cleveland is that most of the studentsparticipating in the choice program are going to exactly the kinds ofschools, Jane, you like. So I mean, the first signs -- but let's notgo into this wholesale. Let's go step by step. Let's have anexperimental approach. But let's have some more experiments outthere. We've now got two, one in Milwaukee, one in Cleveland. Let'shave some more. Let's not try to settle this overnight one way oranother.


MR. HENIG: Paul, what about the situation in Milwaukee? The studyyou did focused on three of the schools that have been around thelongest, that had a track record really before the program started.But there's another side to Milwaukee that gets at this issue, whereyou've had a number of schools close in the middle of the year, oneearly on, two more this past year. You've had allegations ofcorruption, in some cases of the folks running a couple of theseschools in Milwaukee overinflating their enrollments in order to getmore money from the state, at least my understanding is, indictmentsagainst the head of one of the schools, someone who skipped town inDecember.


So there is, is there not, a reasonable question, a distinction tobe made between these new schools that would pop up and more stable,traditional schools that have been around for a long time?


MR. PETERSON: Well, we could get into the details in Milwaukee.One of the schools was an elementary school that closed within threemonths of the program beginning. And of course, that actually showsthat a choice program works, that if a school is not effective, thenyou can quickly move on to something that is effective.


MR. MOE: It's wrong to point to the Milwaukee voucher experimentand complain about corruption when the New York City school systemshould be closed down on that basis, if that's what you're concernedabout.


MS. HANNAWAY: You know, Terry's, I think, bringing up an importantdistinction that I would like to stress. We hear people complainingabout the public school system. The public school system in theUnited States in general is doing exceedingly well. All theindicators in the public school system have been going up. Thepercentage of kids taking AP exams has gone up. The SAT, math is thehighest it's been in 25 years. Kids in Iowa and in a number of themiddle states are performing as well on international tests as kidsin Japan and Taiwan. I think we really have to make a big distinctionbetween the public school system in general and urban public schoolsystems.


MR. WATTENBERG: But what about the problems of teachers andteachers' unions and, just to get political or politicized again fora moment, we have a couple of clips again from Dole and Clinton fromtheir respective conventions. Let's just take a listen to that.


MR. DOLE: (From videotape.) I say this not to the teachers, but totheir unions. If education were a war, you would be losing it. If itwere a business, you would be driving it into bankruptcy. If it werea patient, it would be dying.


PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From videotape.) Never forget that none of uswould be here tonight if it weren't for our teachers. I know Iwouldn't. We ought to lift them up, not tear them down.


MR. WATTENBERG: From those clips, which are clips -- I mean snip,snip -- President Clinton did not deal, and I don't recall that hedid even if we saw the whole speech, with the specific charge aboutteacher unions, who are catching a lot of hell these days.


MR. HENIG: The unions are frightened. They see this, particularlychoice that involves private schools, as a union-busting technique.They see this as basically a way to work around the unions to de-fundthe public schools or, if not to do that completely, to undermineeven further the political power of the unions. And to some extent,you know, those fears are justified, but I think they've beenunimaginative in their failure to frame progressive alternatives.


MR. PETERSON: One of the things about unions is that it is intheir interest to protect the weakest teacher because every teacherfeels they might be picked on. And if you can protect the weakestteacher, you can protect all teachers. So that's just in the natureof the organization.


MR. MOE: I think that on the one hand, unions affect the structureof schools by making them more rigid, by imposing costs on them, bymaking it difficult to get good teachers and get rid of bad teachers,and so on. But on the political side, they also have more clout thanany other actor in the politics of education, and they use thatpolitical power to prevent the emergence of charter schools, of theuse of private companies, reliance on vouchers for low-income kids.


MS. HANNAWAY: I think the problem has been focusing too much onunions, focusing exclusively on unions. I think there are many otherissues that we also have to deal with. The unions aren't the -- Icertainly don't want to be put in a position where I'm defendingeverything about the unions. I think there are lots of areas wherereform is necessary, but --


MR. MOE: The union is the 500-pound gorilla in education politics.


MR. WATTENBERG: All right, Terry, let me just ask you -- justlet's wrap up the union thing. Would you say -- you've made your caseas to where unions have been stultifying, but as I say, just to wrapthis up, haven't they, let's say in the course of the last 30 years,by raising salaries and the working conditions for teachers, haven'tthey at least -- you're a market theorist -- haven't they brought inbetter teachers by having better conditions and better standards andbetter pay?


MR. MOE: No. Unions have made it increasingly difficult to hirethe kinds of people that --there are a lots of people out there insociety who might like to teach, who would be exciting, goodteachers, but who can't get in because of a variety of obstacles thathave been put up: attending education schools, getting certificates,and so on. Unions have made it difficult to become teachers, theymake it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers, and they make itexpensive for school districts to employ teachers, and they use theirpolitical power to make fundamental reforms virtually impossible.


MR. WATTENBERG: You guys out there believe in markets foreducation, but not for economics. You're saying, if you pay teachersless, you'll get better teachers.


MR. PETERSON: Ah. Well, I'll tell you what happens is that theprivate school setting is so interesting and so challenging in aneducational sense, and you don't have to worry about the bureaucraticproblems, that teachers are willing to take less in pay in order tohave a satisfying experience.




MS. HANNAWAY: Ben, if I could just interject here.




MS. HANNAWAY: I think that's, you know, another area ofuncertainty. I think we all agree that there should be someexperimentation. We aren't sure if there would be a sufficient supplyof teachers out there that would be willing to work in privateschools for lower pay.


MR. HENIG: I think --


MR. WATTENBERG: Well, but it -- go ahead.


MR. HENIG: I think it's also important to make -- I mean, Paul'spainting with a very broad brush, private schools, just like we'retending to in terms of public schools. There's a very wide range ofeducational experiences out there in the private schools. Tony Brike(ph) and others at University of Chicago, who have looked at Catholicschools and who agree that they're performing better, haveessentially indicated that most of the teaching styles and curriculumare very conventional, not exciting, not innovative, not dramatic,not the kinds of things that I think Paul may have seen in the two orthree schools in Milwaukee that he looked at.


MR. WATTENBERG: Jane, you are for experimentation. Most of thepeople on this panel seem to be for experimentation. Bob Dole's planis an experimental plan. Doesn't he have a helluva political issuehere?


MS. HANNAWAY: Well, what is true, Ben, is that the public opinionpolls show that people are more open than they ever have been topublic money going for vouchers for private schools. Still a majorityof the populace is against it, but the proportion for it has beenincreasing. But I think it really is a mislabel to call the Dole planin any sense an experiment. It would be promoting a pretty widespreadpractice, and I don't think we know enough at this point to really gothat far.


MR. WATTENBERG: It's a couple of billion dollars per year. It's$12 billion over six years, is that correct?


MS. HANNAWAY: That's right, that's right. It's about 2.5 (billiondollars) just in federal money.


MR. WATTENBERG: I understand.


MS. HANNAWAY: Per year, and that would be met --


MR. MOE: Jane, what could possibly be wrong with giving low-incomechildren financial assistance so that they can get out of bad schoolsand into better schools? How can you possibly object to that?


MS. HANNAWAY: Well, when you put it that way, I don't object toit, Terry.


MR. MOE: Okay, then we agree.


MS. HANNAWAY: As a matter of fact, I think we should beexperimenting along those lines, but what I do object to about theDole plan is that it's too widespread in order to have effectivecontrols, especially on the supply side of where these schools aregoing to come from. And the other thing I object to, Terry, is I'mnot sure where he's going to get this 2.5 billion (dollars) from.


MR. WATTENBERG: We had a little experiment here in Washington --just getting back to Terry was saying. You know, how can anybodypossibly be against giving school vouchers for parochial schools orprivate schools to the poorest of the poor? The Republicans, of allpeople, Speaker Gingrich proposed that for a couple of thousandstudents in the inner city of Washington, where the school are bygeneral acknowledgement dreadful, the Republicans, the conservativessaid give these kids money, and the liberals -- Ted Kennedy, amongothers -- were up there jumping up and down, allegedly pushed by theunion --


MR. PETERSON: Ben, this is a really good part of your reasoning.


MR. WATTENBERG: How can that -- I mean --

MR. PETERSON: Can I just make a point here, Ben?


MR. WATTENBERG: Is the world upside down? Go ahead.


MR. PETERSON: Ben, let me just make this point. Your observationis really on target. You know, Republicans are too concerned aboutcutting costs, reducing the amount of money we should spend oneducation. We should be spending a lot more on education. We shouldbe spending twice as much on education and half as much on medicalcare. We are spending as much money to extend the year of life by oneyear as we are on the education of people in the first 18 years. Andthe Republicans should really get behind spending more on education.


At the same time, the Democratic Party is so tied into theexisting educational establishment, the school boards and teacherunions, that they can't think creatively about how to use that money.So --


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, hold it.


MR. PETERSON: -- you've really got to break through both politicalparties on this one.


MR. WATTENBERG: Thank you, Dr. Kevorkian, for that view of thefinal year of life. (Laughter.)


Jeff, you know, you're involved with District of Columbiaactivities, as I understand it. Is there -- I don't want to sound asif I'm on one side of this issue, although I probably am -- is thereany excuse for not letting poor kids, a couple thousand poor kids inWashington, D.C., get a private school voucher?


MR. HENIG: I think if by experiment we mean trying things in a waythat is going to generate good, useful information, then what wasbeing proposed was not an experiment. There was no provision in whatwas being discussed about how this would be evaluated. These are thekinds of things that I think are important if what we're talkingabout is true experimentation.


I want to make one other point, and maybe I'm posing this as aquestion to Paul because, you know, I believe that if you talk aboutschool choice targeted specifically on low-income kids or schoolsthat are worse off, that that's interesting and ought to beconsidered. I'm much more wary, I think, than you are, Paul, of thenotion that that can be sustained once it's put into place, that thepolitical dynamics -- and we know that politics changes programs oncethey're out there and begin building their constituency. Given howmuch resistance there has been historically in the suburbs towardsopening up and sharing some of the burden for inner city -- educatinginner city kids, given the history of resistance in states toreallocating resources from wealthier districts to lower-incomedistricts, why are you as confident as you seem to be that a programthat begins as a program aimed at the poor can --


MR. PETERSON: Can I answer that, Jeff?


MR. HENIG: Sure.


MR. PETERSON: Can I answer that?


MR. WATTENBERG: Let's hear the short answer and then I want to ask--


MR. PETERSON: The short answer is Americans believe in equality ofeducational opportunity. They don't believe in equality of result. Weare not going to get a lot of help for poor people after they becomeadults and have difficulties. But there is a lot of support in theAmerican tradition for giving people equal educational opportunity,and if choice works for poor people, I think Americans will supportit.


MR. WATTENBERG: All right. I have just appointed you president ofthe United States with a majority in both houses of Congress andgovernor of any given state you want and the head of the schoolboard. You're it. You've got five years to play around. Terry Moe,what would you do? Fast.


MR. MOE: I would give the states and the districts money andincentives to set up choice systems that would allow, especially inurban areas, children and parents to get out of bad schools and seekout better schools and present the public school system withcompetition from the private sector.




MR. PETERSON: I would take the Cleveland --


MR. WATTENBERG: Or Mr. President, as I'd like to call you.(Laughter.)


MR. PETERSON: I'd take the Cleveland voucher plan, triple thevouchers and try that out in a hundred cities.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, Madame President, Jane.


MS. HANNAWAY: I would set up a series of very well-designedexperiments in which I would test a number of alternative ways ofreforming governments in urban areas.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Mr. President, Jeff Henig, George WashingtonUniversity, sir.


MR. HENIG: I'd declare that as a country, we have a big stake inan existing public school system. I'd allocate money for addressingthe capital needs of buildings that are deteriorating. I'd takeseriously the issue of teacher development, including with teachertraining working on breaking down some of the union regulations thatmake it difficult to eliminate incompetent teachers. I think there isa constituency even among teachers to do that.


MR. WATTENBERG: But what would you do about choice?


MR. HENIG: I would see choice as a minor part of my program. Iwould like to experiment with it in small settings and get goodresults. I don't think we're anywhere near to having enoughinformation to jump in both feet.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Paul Peterson, Terry Moe, JeffreyHenig, and Jane Hannaway.


And thank you. We enjoy hearing from our viewers. You can write tous at: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.20036.


For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.


ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content.


'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen, recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology, improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.


Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation andthe Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.


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