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March 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 6

Talking Back / On Privatization

School Choice Distorted

I'm writing to express my dismay at the decision to publish James Harvey's article "" (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 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.

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