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School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education & A Response

reviewed by Terry Moe - 1996

coverTitle: School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education & A Response
Author(s): Peter W. Cookson
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0300064993, Pages: , Year: 1995
Search for book at Amazon.com

This book has been out only a short time, but it has already been greeted with open arms by opponents of school choice. And for good reason. It presumes to offer a broadly based objective appraisal of both the movement for school choice and the actual effects of choice-based reforms, and much of what it has to say is profoundly negative. Jonathan Kozol, whose fierce opposition to choice is well known, lauds the book as a balanced and sober assessment . . . [that] will be welcomed by almost everyone who deeply values public education and the democratic principles that nourish it as an ideal (quotation taken from jacket copy).

Because I am a supporter of choice (and criticized as such by Cookson), the predictable response on my part is to wreak vengeance on the book. But who wants to be predictable? Not me. So my great hope, going in, was that I might find some basis on which to write a positive review. And believe me, I tried. But the fact is that this book is so weak in so many respects that I cannot avoid saying so.

There is nothing balanced and sober about Cooksons analysis. From the preface onward, his own normative values are in the drivers seat. In this view, the struggle over school choice is a struggle between good guys and bad guys. Choice advocates are the bad guys. Their movement is driven by conservative ideology, by Reaganism, and by the religious Right, all of them evil forces on the American political scene. The good guys are the ones who oppose these evil forces, the ones who distrust markets and believe in democracy, the public schools, and social justice. People like Cookson himself. And Kozol, whose quote above says it all.

This sort of moral pretension is not so unusual. People of all ideological stripes are prone to it, often following a familiar script: The bad guys are being ideological, but the good guys are not-they are objective, fairminded, and standing up for important values that deserve to be protected. Cookson follows the script. Although his book is an ideological exercise from beginning to end, he portrays choice advocates as unseemly ideologues and himself as a high-minded sociologist in search of the truth.

As this can only suggest, Cooksons brand of social science is a pale imitation of the real thing, and produces an analysis that is full of problems. For reasons of space, I will mention just four (but I could easily go on).

1. The basis of explanation in social science is theory, yet it plays no role in Cooksons thinking. He talks loosely, for instance, about the market metaphor, but he never seriously addresses microeconomic theory, which is fundamental to the theory of school choice-and, by almost any account, the most powerful and best documented theory in all of social science. Similarly, he never addresses the theory of government that animates choices expectations about the current system of public education. To Cookson, it appears, all such theoriesmetaphors, excuse meare really just expressions of ideology anyway. Indeed, at one point he plaintively asks, Why is it that a significant number of scholars and policymakers have advocated an ideology called rational choice theory? (p. 101). This kind of thinking is difficult to fathom. It sort of knocks the breath out of you.

2. Cooksons portrayal of the choice movement as a-conservative-religious conspiracy may be ideologically satisfying, but it distorts reality. Poll after poll has revealed, for instance, that the greatest support for choice actually comes from poor minority populationsfor they are the ones who have no choice now and are stuck in the worst schools. Cookson thinks it is an irony that the only voucher program in the country is in inner-city Milwaukee for poor kids, but it is ironic only if you do not understand what is going on. Cookson also ignores the fact that, since the late 1970s or so, governments all around the world have been moving aggressively toward a far greater reliance on markets. The reason: an emerging worldwide consensus that markets often work better than political regulation and control. The school choice movement, here and elsewhere, is an integral part of this. To explain it in peculiarly American (especially conspiratorial) terms is to lose all perspective.

3. Cooksons assessment of the empirical literature on choice reads more like a personal statement than a scientific analysis. There is little indication here that methodology, statistics, and data analysis are his comparative advantage, and there is no analytical bite to what he has to say. He is mostly just offering his own impressions. Throughout, he fails to appreciate that most choice-based reforms are political compromises that make small, incremental changes to the traditional system. There is plenty of evidence that parents who choose are more satisfied and involved with their schools, that choice schools are more like communities, and so onbut we should not expect revolutionary improvements from incremental reforms. They are not choice systems. What we should expect of these incremental reforms, and how the evidence actually reflects on the systemic arguments of choice advocates, requires careful attention to their institutional detailsand a theoretical sense that Cookson does not bring to the job.

4. After some 120 pages of bashing most aspects of choice, Cookson concludes by unveilingyou guessed it-his own choice proposal, a plan restricted to public schools that modestly aims at reinventing public education (and, so far as I can tell, calls for an astronomical increase in taxes to do it). He really does support choice, you see, but in an antimarket, atheoretical sort of way that keeps you on your toes, looking for some shred of logic that might make sense of it all. After telling us earlier that people are not rational and that markets cannot be trusted, he now tells us that parents will surely vote with their feet if schools do not meet their childrens needs. After earlier extolling the virtues of democratic control, he now claims that American education cannot be transformed without ending bureaucratic control over individual schools. (p. 135) You figure it out.

Obviously, I think this book has little to recommend it. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that it will be well received throughout the educational community, widely assigned to students, and influential. Thats life.

Response to review of School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education

PETER W. COOKSON, JR., Adelphi University

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to Terry Moe's review of my book. The tone of his review is rather personal and inaccurately portrays my work. Rather than engage in a sterile and unp£_oductive debate, I will touch on a few issues that emerge from his review. These issues are my basic posi­tion on choice, the nature of my research, and the difference between Moe's position on school reform and mine.

As my book makes clear, I am not against school choice-that is why I included a school choice plan in the final chapter. I feel strongly that jus­tice-driven school choice can lead to improved practice "within schools and enable public schools to fulfill their historic mission of providing families with opportunities for learning and upward mobility. I am skeptical that market-driven school choice will result in an accountable, fair, and produc­tive school system.

My observations about school choice spring not from a "theory," but from analyzing the results of numerous interviews and by visiting school districts and states where school choice plans have been implemented. Because my study was not an armchair efforC I have little doubt that cer­tain paradoxes revealed in the real world of schools are_ reflected in the book. Should it be othenvise? One of the consequences of trying to under­stand the social world through large quantitative data sets is that researchers often cannot identify the political opportunities and con­straints that shape public policy. I made a concerted effort to understand the larger context of the school choice movement by looking for data out­side the quantitative measures that Moe and others have used. Perhaps it is for this reason that Moe does not fully understand that to discover that market-driven school choice is supported by the Republican party, many religious fundamentalists, and numerous busiriess-oriented conservatives is a finding, not an ideological statement.

Essentially, Moe and I disagree about the efficacy of marke�� to bring about a just society. To my way of thinking, markets are power structures ill-suited to providing the kinds of human sc:!rvices that_ are ne��ded in a stratified and deeply unequal society. I believe this point of view is gaining increasing credibility as the effects of privatization come to be felt by those in weak market positions. My book is an effort to incorporate some market principles into the governance of public education without destroying the democratic foundation of a school system dedicated to providing equality of opportunity.

Finally, it is a common pose of those who disagree ;vi.th an author's find­ings to claim that the author is sloppy, ideological, and suffering from moral pretension. By striking this pose, Moe reveals the weakness of his own position and reassures me that my findings can, withstand the closest and most hostile scrutiny.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 3, 1996, p. 497-500
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1436, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:05:10 PM

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  • Terry Moe
    Stanford University

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