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School Choices: True and False

reviewed by Kevin R. Kosar - 2004

coverTitle: School Choices: True and False
Author(s): John Merrifield
Publisher: The Independent Institute, Oakland, CA
ISBN: 0945999860, Pages: 97, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com

John Merrifield’s School Choices: True and False is, indubitably, the punchiest book by an economist that I have read. The prose is crisp, the footnotes minimal (less than 50), and one can saw through its 73 pages of text in an evening. School Choices: True and False appears to be an adaptation of his lengthier The School Choice Wars (Scarecrow Press, 2001).

Merrifield’s big point, which he makes repeatedly, is that for all the chatter about school choice,

America has yet to really give it a try. “Current parental choice programs and nearly all the prominent choice proposals are too small and contain too many restrictions to harness market forces effectively” (p. 2). The “modest voucher, tax credit, and public school choice programs (including charter schools) widely touted as experiments lack nearly all of the key requirements for competition.” (p. 45).

This is true. Whether we speak of the

Milwaukee , Cleveland , or any other so called experimental choice program, inevitably some element of the pure market is missing. No choice program allows school pricing to be determined by parental demand and schooling supply. Program rules constrain market forces, and significant barriers exist that prevent more firms from entering the schooling market. This infuriates Merrifield because it stymies school reform. Rivalry from a small number of private schools in choice programs is unlikely to goad the great many public schools to change their ways.

Perhaps more vexing to Merrifield, though, is that both those for and against school choice proclaim these programs as true experiments in market reform. “I’m not against the current limited programs,” he writes. “What I object to and strongly criticize is the excessive amount of attention such programs receive and the wrong, misleading, and irrelevant statements made about them” (p. 47). Throughout the text, but particularly in chapter 7 (“Loose Lips Sink Causes”), Merrifield skewers many of the big names in the school choice debate. Paul Peterson of Harvard, Jeanne Allen of the Center for School Reform, John Witte of the

University of Wisconsin and others are taken to task. Indeed, the entire debate amongst the policy and intellectual elites appears to strike Merrifield as nonsensical, and choice advocates are playing the fools. In the course of pushing for choice, voucher advocates compromised away the key elements of market-based reform. This has left them agonizing to locate student educational improvement in data from experiments ill-designed to produce it. The great peril, obviously, is that school choice may be discredited as a failure before it is ever really tried.

Generally, School Choices: True and False is to the point and well written. Occasionally, the reader gets the funny feeling that Merrifield is new to the debate. Merrifield describes Helen Ladd, co-author of When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale, as a “choice advocate” (p. 50). No choice advocates that I know would describe her as such; indeed, Ladd’s book raises profound questions about the wisdom of school choice. Merrifield speaks briefly on the student “achievement deficit” and pins it on the “public school monopoly.” He mentions the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) exam as proof that “even our best students are not competitive” (p. 14). It is true that

America ’s eighth- and twelfth-graders scored middling and poorly respectively. However, our fourth-graders performed at the top. If monopoly is the problem, one wonders why American elementary school children did so well.

The larger problem the book faces is that it is heavy on policy and light on politics. Again, Merrifield, justifiably, is unhappy that choice advocates have agreed to truncated market reform experiments. He advises them to quit mischaracterizing the current programs and to fight for pure choice of the sort advocated by Milton Friedman a half of a century back. Merrifield describes “critical polices and key options” (chapter 8) for choice advocates, suggestions to improve the status quo. Unfortunately, his suggestions are briefly sketched and do not rigorously analyze the political constraints. Thus, he casually declares since “limited [choice] programs will face as much resistance as 100 percent child-based, nondiscriminatory public funding, it makes sense to talk about the latter almost exclusively” (p. 58). Letting the public know that current choice programs are inadequate is helpful to the cause of school choice, it does not contend with the cause of the problem. Question: Why do we have these inadequate programs? Answer: Politics watered down pure market reform.

As Merrifield knows, great forces (sunk costs, interest group resistance, etc.) weigh against radical change. In education and many other policy areas optimal policy solutions often get twisted into “worse than half-measures” in the course of adoption and implementation. Thus, the challenge for the analyst who wants to improve the state of schooling is not merely to demand that politics give way to pure, rational policy (Teles, 2000). Rather, one must advocate reform in light of the constraints of politics. This requires one to reason back and forth between the components of effective reform and the politics that both favor and disfavor said reform (Mead, 1985).

Instead, here choice advocates get a brief hypothetical example of district level reform and are charged to keep the faith. “If we keep our eyes on the goal [of pure educational choice] and are not distracted by half-measures and by worse than half-measures, it can happen quickly, much like the sudden collapse in 1989 of the socialists regimes of eastern Europe” (p. 73). This may buck up the troops, but it does not really tell them how to get where they want to go.


Fiske, Edward B. & Ladd, Helen F. (2000). When schools compete: A cautionary tale.

Washington , D.C. : Brookings Institution Press.

Mead, Lawrence M. (1985). “Policy studies and political science,” Policy Studies Review, 5, 319-335

Merrifield, John. (2001). The school choice wars.

Lanham , Maryland : Scarecrow Press.

Teles, Steven M. (2000). “Paradoxes of welfare-state conservatism,” The Public Interest, 141, 17-40..

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 326-328
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11158, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:24:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Kevin Kosar
    Library of Congress
    E-mail Author
    KEVIN R. KOSAR is an Analyst in American National Government at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Politics at New York University. He is the author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Eduction Standards (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005). His commentaries and writings on education policy and politics may be found at http://www.kevinrkosar.com.
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