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School Choice

BEN WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. These days many say that school choice is an issue whose time has come. Others say itís a distraction from the real problem, which is fixing our public schools.

ďThink TankĒ visited New York City, the countryís largest school system, to get to the heart of the matter. And educating us in the studio are Paul Peterson, director of the program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, author of two special reports on school choice programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and the author of ďThe Price of Federalism;Ē Thomas Sobol, former commissioner of Education for New York State and professor of Outstanding Educational Practice at Columbia University Teachers College; Jeffrey Henig, professor at the George Washington University and author of ďRethinking School Choice: Limits of the Market Metaphor;Ē and Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor to City Journal.

The topic before this house, should America choose school choice? This week on ďThink Tank.Ē

MR. WATTENBERG: In mid-September, shortly after the beginning of the school year, we went to St. Charles Barromeo Grade School in the heart of Harlem in New York City. Catholic schools like St. Charles are flashpoints in the national debate about school vouchers and school choice. Moreover, St. Charles is part of an important educational experiment now unfolding.

This year the School Choice Scholarship Foundation began a privately funded venture awarding educational vouchers to 1,300 low-income public school children. These scholarships partially pay the tuition for students who go to any private or religious institution which will accept them. The demand for these scholarships has been intense. The foundation received over 20,000 applications from all over New York City. Eighty percent of those who receive the scholarships use them to send their children to Catholic grade schools.

Eva Smallwood moved her granddaughter out of the public school she attended down the street and into St. Charles.

EVA SMALLWOOD: Public school has a tendency not to discipline the children the way they should. In private schools there is a lot of discipline, the children have rules and regulations that they must follow in order to stay in school, and also good education. So any parents who can afford to send their children to private school, I recommend it. I had hoped that Rebecca (sp) would be able to attend a private school, but at the time I could not afford it. So when we heard about the scholarship, that she was accepted, I was very happy about it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Opponents of school choice say that may be fine for Eva Smallwood but, they maintain, thereís no way the Catholic church could take one million public school students in New York City. Whatís more, they say, school choice can erode confidence in the already beleaguered public schools even further. Critics, finally, maintain that public schooling is a last guarantee for a common American experience. To sacrifice that at the hands of a voucher market is just too high a price to pay.

President Clinton recently came out full scale against vouchers.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: (From tape.) Some in Congress would diminish our countryís commitment to public education by siphoning badly needed funds away from our public schools into a voucher program that would support private academies for a very limited number of students. The answer is to put competition, change, excellence, accountability back into the public school system, not to take limited funds away from it.

MR. WATTENBERG: But professional educators from the Catholic school system donít quite see it that way.

MONSIGNOR HARRIS (PASTOR, ST. CHARLES BARROMEO): Everyone is paying taxes, and Iím not saying that the voucher has to pay for your entire education, but if there were a percentage that could come out to make a difference and help the parents in their tuition load that theyíre doing besides their taxes, I think itís worthwhile and can do us all a benefit.

CATHERINE HICKEY (SUPERINTENDENT, N.Y.C. CATHOLIC SCHOOLS): It is unfair that parents who are poor, the working poor and the working middle class, have limited choices as to the education that they can choose, and the welfare poor, the poorest of the poor, have no choice at all.

MR. WATTENBERG: Havenít we been down this road before? After all, studies of choice programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland suggest that vouchers do indeed help students. But that data was highly controversial. The New York experiment is brand new, and with it will come brand new hopes and concerns. Both sides of the debate will be watching the Big Apple closely.

Gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us on ďThink Tank.Ē Let us just go around the room quickly, starting with you, Professor Henig, and let me just ask you all, do you oppose or favor public funding for private school vouchers?

JEFFREY HENIG: Iím strongly opposed to large-scale precipitous movement in the direction of public vouchers. I think the institutions of education are too valuable to risk, and I think the choices of large-scale movement in that direction Ė the risks are very high. Iím not opposed to small-scale targeted experiments to learn more, but I think we have a lot to learn.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, Tom Sobol, former commissioner.

THOMAS SOBOL: My reaction is similar. Itís a matter of context and of scale. If what weíre talking about is publicly funded vouchers for private schools for students in schools that have been demonstrably failing, absolutely we should do that. Our obligation to educate them transcends our obligation to protect and defend the public school system. But, itís very, very difficult for me to imagine the whole of society voucherized. I donít think we would like the kind of system that would ensue under those conditions.


SOL STERN: Iím in favor of publicly funded scholarships, and I think probably I would be in favor of it on a larger scale than my two predecessors seem to support. And the reason is that we know that there is large-scale failure in American public schools, particularly in the inner cities. Thatís where there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of kids who desperately need liberation from a failed system.

MR. WATTENBERG: Paul Peterson?

PAUL PETERSON: Iím going with the parents in Cleveland. They just were asked, how was it like to get a voucher, and they just love it; they just love it. Youíve got to say, weíve got to do some more of this to see if this is really going to help elsewhere, too.

MR. WATTENBERG: It doesnít seem as if we have anyone on the panel who says no, no, absolutely no, it would be a camelís nose under the tent, it would destroy the public school system. But you sort of think that, a little bit?

MR. HENIG: Iím very wary that thatís in fact the political dynamic that will take place once we do begin to move in that direction. I donít think that the public schools in some of our inner city neighborhoods are working well now. I think we do have to address some real problems there. Iím willing to take a pragmatic approach: letís try things out, letís learn from them.

MR. WATTENBERG: So would you on this side of the fence here support this New York City experiment to see whatís going on?

MR. SOBOL: Yes, I would. I would, but I think the camelís nose phenomenon is one to be wary of nonetheless. Let me just relate an experience I had very quickly. Back six, seven, eight years ago now Ė Sol knows about it Ė we proposed in the state of New York from the state level Ė

MR. WATTENBERG: You were then the commissioner?

MR. SOBOL: I was then serving as commissioner of Education Ė

MR. WATTENBERG: The somewhat controversial commissioner at that time.

MR. SOBOL: I donít know why you would say that, Ben.

(Scattered laughter.)

MR. WATTENBERG: We can talk about that later.

MR. SOBOL: Yeah, donít believe that. Weíll talk later.

We proposed a limited voucher system for kids in schools that were clearly failing, as many, alas, are, and it became very quickly clear that the extent and fervor of the opposition to that proposal was such that we wouldnít get anything else done if we persisted in it.

MR. WATTENBERG: The opposition was principally Ė

MR. SOBOL: From the teacher unions, from the School Boards Association, from many parents across the state. There was also a great deal of support for it. But the public school establishment, as I think of it, was so vigorous and so vehement in its opposition that it became very clear that we werenít going to get much else done by way of reforming the public system, and we pulled the proposal off the table.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is this issue of school choice a liberal or a conservative issue, or is there a certain blending going on now?

MR. PETERSON: Well, Iím a liberal, and Iím for choice, and the choice has always been what liberals are for. I think itís a complete irony that in American politics today the conservatives are promoting a concept, choice for the individual, which has been historically a liberal concept. But I think itís partly just because of the way the teacher organizations have lined up with the Democratic Party.

MR. STERN: Itís a crossover issue. I think there are a lot of conservatives that are opposed to it because theyíre afraid of government regulation of private schools, and theyíre right that with tax dollars comes regulation. There are, obviously, many liberals that are in favor of it.

MR. WATTENBERG: The momentum now, politically, in the country seems to have moved rather suddenly toward vouchers. You now have, for example, a number of black politicians from the inner city who all along had been aligned with the teachers union and the educational establishment who are now saying, letís give it a shot, so maybe something is going on.

MR. STERN: I think definitely something is going on. I mean, Reverend Floyd Flake, the African-American congressman from New York City, is now a fervent sponsor of one of these pieces of legislation. Heís a member of the board of trustees of this private scholarship program. So itís clear that thereís tremendous Ė on every survey, opinion survey, black parents have a higher Ė a higher percentage are in favor of vouchers, because they live with the problem every day. They see their kids going to schools that are destroying their opportunities.

MR. WATTENBERG: Donít the Catholic schools tend to proselytize their children, and if you send non-Catholic kids into Catholic schools you are making a religious commitment of public funds?

MR. STERN: But no one is sending them in there. This is a choice that these parents will have to make for themselves. And the fact is, and in inner city neighborhoods all over this country, there are non-Catholic minority kids attending Catholic schools. Most of them are not coming out Catholics. Theyíre doing it because theyíre getting a better education. Theyíre getting the discipline Ė

MR. PETERSON: We checked this out in Cleveland, by the way. In Cleveland you can get a voucher to go to a Catholic school. A lot of parents are doing this. Some of them are not Catholic. We asked the parents how satisfied they were with a whole range of things: discipline, safety, academic quality, teaching moral values, class size, facilities, a whole range of things. And one of the things we checked was to say, well, does this work better for Catholic kids than for non-Catholic kids? Absolutely no difference. Basically, yes, you have prayer in school and you have certain kinds of religious ceremonies and so forth, but what parents really want in their school is a safe environment where they feel their kids are being taught. Everybody is Ė I mean, not everybody, but a very large percentage of the parents are saying that.

MR. WATTENBERG: Commissioner Sobol is Ė heís shrugging.

MR. SOBOL: Well, let me include a dissonant note, if I may -- itís not exactly dissonant. I canít argue with anything youíve just said. Iím willing to stipulate that the schools work, and that in many, many situations Ė

MR. WATTENBERG: The Catholic schools work.

MR. SOBOL: The Catholic schools work, or the other independent schools accessed by public money work for the kids who havenít been receiving a good education previously. I agree with that absolutely. But there is a larger question not to ignore, however, and that is what kind of system of schools do you want to end up with in the society? We know that these schools work academically, and in other terms, for the kids. We also know that they tend to segregate. They segregate by socioeconomic status. Potentially they segregate along religious and political lines, perhaps, cultural and ethnic lines, downstream. We ought to think very carefully before we take a limited experiment of promising utility and make that our grand plan for the totality for the future, because in doing so weíre going to lose something very valuable in this society.

MR. WATTENBERG: But Sol says that by taking that overly cautious, in his view, position you are taking hostage a lot of poor kids. I mean, here in Washington Ė and Iíd like to hear your comments, Professor Henig Ė you have the bizarre circumstance of conservative Republicans saying letís give scholarships to poor inner city blacks and liberal Democrats saying uh-uh, thatís a bad idea. Now how does that work out -- I mean with that plan, with that plan?

MR. HENIG: Well, the main problem in terms of the specifics of Washington D.C. is this is an externally imposed proposal. This is not something that has come through the public debate or discussion.

MR. WATTENBERG: The whole city is being run externally now.

MR. HENIG: My feeling is that if you want school choice to fail then pick a place thatís going to view it as a hostile imposition and it will fail.

MR. PETERSON: In terms of the whole question as to whether private schools will balkanize our society, the data on that is quite interesting. A colleague of mine, Jay Green, has looked at a national data set and said, okay, are private schools more segregated than public schools? Racially, theyíre not. Theyíre less segregated than public schools. How about friendships in private schools? Do you have more friendships across racial lines? Yes, you do. Do you have fewer racial conflicts, as reported by teachers and by students? Fewer in private schools than public schools. Also, attitudes about tolerance for others, much better among private school students, controlling for family background characteristics.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you believe that the public school system should be therefore dismantled, and we should have a system of private schools only?

MR. PETERSON: No, I think really what we have here is an amazing consensus, because I think that the problems are severe in our central cities, and thatís where we should begin. We have yet to see a statewide referendum that poses the question this way: Letís have some larger-scale experiments in a central city. Weíve had a couple of small ones in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Weíve got some private ones, now, one starting in New York, one in Indianapolis, one in San Antonio. So the ones that weíve been trying so far look like theyíre working. Itís time, perhaps, to begin thinking about going to a larger-scale experiment to see if the problems you raise are real ones.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is the New York experiment designed to sort of do away with the argument that was advanced against the Milwaukee and Cleveland experiment, that they just creamed the top students? Is that the model of New York Ė

MR. PETERSON: Well, the really nice thing about New York is that weíre going to have a randomized experiment there because 20,000 people applied and only 1,300 got in.

MR. WATTENBERG: All from low-income areas?

MR. PETERSON: All from low-income families. They were chosen in a lottery. The lottery was done by an outside evaluation team. We know itís a lottery. Weíre going to be able to follow them for the next four years. Weíre going to know for sure whether or not they are actually learning more. There are problems with the Milwaukee data set. I quite agree with the critics that say itís not the best data set in the world. But weíre going to have much better data out of New York.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you have a problem with the New York model, the way itís described?

MR. HENIG: From my understanding, will the New York study give us more information that may be useful? Yes. Iím looking forward to seeing the results of that study. There youíre not talking about publicly funded vouchers though, letís be clear. This is a privately funded program, and if private groups and individuals want to support scholarships to low-income people, Iím not going to challenge their right to do it and Iím happy if theyíre going to do it in a way thatís going to provide some systematic data, which they seem to be doing.

MR. WATTENBERG: But they will then use that to say see, it works, now letís use public dollars for it.

MR. HENIG: And that is my concern is what is going to happen? I donít think we can stop just because I have fears about the political dynamics, but I think those are realistic fears.

MR. WATTENBERG: If you go into a voucher system, you will have Ė I mean, weíve seen it here in Washington and elsewhere Ė you will have sort of some black nationalist schools, you will have ultra-orthodox Jewish schools, you will have schools where witchcraft is taught, and you know, the litany of horrors Ė

MR. STERN: Uh-oh, this is the parade of imaginary horribles. Itís used against any innovation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why would a witchcraft school not be able to get a charter and a voucher?

MR. STERN: First of all, Ben, do you think there are no black nationalist schools in the public school system? You donít think kids are being taught about Malcolm X to the exclusion of George Washington? We donít have multiculturalism carried to an extraordinary length in the public schools now? The reality is the Catholic schools out there seem more concerned about building up, you know, inculcating the kids in the common American culture than the public schools. You know, the assumption here is that everyone out there thatís opposed to these programs takes the same position that Jeff and Tom do, which is, well, we think it ought to go ahead as a small experiment but weíre worried about some of the consequences. Well, thatís true of every new experiment and new paradigm in public policy. But one of the possibilities is in fact that the public schools may be revived because of the kind of competition we have now.

MR. WATTENBERG: What do we have now?

MR. STERN: And thatís one of the reasons why the establishment is opposed to these tiny little experiments. Theyíre worried that if one experiment works people will start asking questions about Ė well, let me ask you, the people in the neighborhood will say, how come that Catholic school across the street is educating the kids for $2,500 per year, and you here in Washington are spending, you know, in the public school system, are spending $9,000 per pupil and nothing is happening? Itís a total disaster. People will start asking those questions.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is that right, Tom?

MR. SOBOL: Itís historically correct. Despite what you say, Sol, despite that, some Russell -- Jane Russell, maybe, or Lillian Ė who was the philosopher, the Russell?

MR. WATTENBERG: Bertrand Russell. (Laughter.) No, it was Jane Russell --

MR. STERN: Maybe he knew Jane Russell in the Biblical sense.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- I think said, all social revolutions go too far.

MR. SOBOL: He said that all social revolutions go too far, and my concern is that we not allow that to happen. That doesnít mean one is unaccountable or one doesnít want to change anything, or one is overly resistant to criticism. It just means reasonable prudence.

MR. WATTENBERG: But the teachers unions are adamant against even experimentation, because of, I assume, the camelís nose under the tent kind of argument. Now, do you think the Ė

MR. STERN: No, not the camelís nose. Thatís what they tell you. Itís going to erode Ė theyíre against it because they donít want their prerogatives challenged right here and now. They donít want people asking questions about why it is you have teachers in the public school system that canít be fired, no matter how incompetent they are, how dysfunctional they are. Thatís what they donít want. They donít want people asking that question. It has nothing to do with Ė

MR. WATTENBERG: The late Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers asked those very same questions very publicly. I mean, fair is fair. It is not as if there are not voices in the teachers unions that are asking those kind of questions, theyíre just coming to different kind of solutions, and they Ė

MR. STERN: No solutions, none.

MR. PETERSON: Has any monopolist ever voluntarily given up their monopoly? Did AT&T say, gee, weíve got a monopoly here on the telephone industry. We want to give this up. No. Youíve got to come in from the outside and say to a monopolist, itís time for a change, youíre not doing your job. We canít expect the teachers ever to support giving up what they now have, a pretty good deal for themselves.

MR. HENIG: But ultimately public schools are to be held accountable by the citizens. Talking about public schools does not mean doing what the teachers unions want to do. Now, I totally agree that in many cities the teachers unions have been regressive forces. Theyíve not helped move the discussion forward, and theyíve resisted efforts that could help. Thatís a problem. The question here is when things go wrong, as they often do, need to be corrected, need to be adapted and need to be learned from, is that decision held within the public sector where there is open access to information, often difficult, but laws to protect it where there is legal structure for popular control, or does it migrate into the private sector? We lose something if the decision, the ability to control this in the future, migrates out of the public sector.

MR. WATTENBERG: You are not against markets. You are saying that politics is a market to control this? You are saying there is accountability for politics.

MR. HENIG: I think any market operates in a structure in which government plays an important role. The question is how are those markets structured, what kinds of information is available, what are the regulations that are existing and can be enforced? Those are issues that concern me.

MR. STERN: But letís talk about the real world. You talk about accountability. We have a public system, itís accountable. New York State Ė the teacherís union writes the New York State education law, basically. They control the Education Committee through their donation. They are the single-largest contributor, contributing more than the next four or five lobbying groups combined, to New York State legislators. They totally write the education law for the state of New York. So who is accountable? Who are we accountable to? How is the school accountable to me as a parent?

MR. WATTENBERG: Again, I just have to do an accuracy check. Are you the former commissioner of Education for New York State? Is that right?

MR. SOBOL: Itís right, but itís not the whole truth. Itís right in the sense that NYSUT Ė New York State United Teachers Ė is the most powerful lobby in the capitol, in Albany, and has inordinate sway over what happens with education policy, education legislation, and so on. On the other hand, I was, for a great many years, Ben, a local school superintendent in a little town in Westchester County, and despite the accuracy of what Sol has just said, let me tell you, we were accountable to the public, and I knew that, viscerally. I mean, I was accountable every time I walked into the hardware store, went down to the tennis courts, went to a cocktail party around town. People knew what was going on in the schools. They cared about it. They came out to meetings. They made their views known, and damn it, we were responsive.

MR. PETERSON: You just described the small town, the rural community, the suburban community. Thatís their world.

MR. STERN: The power of the purse.

MR. PETERSON: There is this other world, the central city, where poor people donít have the ability to walk in and talk to the superintendent. They donít have that kind of political clout. And in that kind of an environment the insiders, the people who know how to play the political game, and the established interest groups, have tremendous power, and thatís where choice holds the greatest promise, to break up that monopoly inside the big city.

MR. SOBOL: I agree with that, Paul. Thatís why I said to me itís a matter of context and of scale, because in that situation I would go ahead.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, thank you, Paul Peterson, Jeffrey Henig, Sol Stern and Thomas Sobol, and thank you. For ďThink Tank,Ē Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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(End of tape.)

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