Apostasy is always news if the apostates are well-known persons on the right, and the case of noted New York University education historian Diane Ravitch is no exception. Mrs. Ravitch, who used to support bold reforms such as school choice, is making headlines condemning those “big ideas” as bad policy. What’s flawed, however, is her narrow view and misinterpretation of evidence.
In a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed column, Mrs. Ravitch derides “choice, competition and accountability” as a “toxic combination” that “is not likely to improve education.” Scorning this “latest big idea,” she asserts that charter schools don’t perform better than regular public schools and that expanding “the number of privately managed schools is not likely to raise student achievement.” She is wrong in both these claims.
The most rigorous studies on charter schools, carried out by Stanford and Harvard university researchers, show that charter school students outperform equally motivated students in regular public schools in both math and reading. Also, EdSource, the respected San Francisco Bay Area-based research organization, found that students in California charter middle and high schools scored higher than students in regular public schools on state tests, even when controlling for factors such as the number of English-language learners, students with disabilities, and the education level of parents.
Mrs. Ravitch is even more off base when she argues that opening up the education marketplace to greater competition from the private sector won’t improve student performance. If she bothered to look, Mrs. Ravitch would have found that implementing this big idea on a big scale works.
In Sweden, which has roughly the same percentage of immigrants as the United States, a nationwide universal school-choice voucher system was instituted in the early 1990s. Before the program’s creation, there were virtually no private schools in the entire country. Yet the Swedish government decided to take the bold step of allowing funding to follow every child to the public or private school chosen by his or her parents. The voucher is available to all parents, regardless of income level, and is equivalent to the per-pupil amount allotted to the local government schools.
The voucher program has expanded to the point that one in five Swedish schools is independent of the government. In certain regions of the country, nearly half of all students are enrolled in an independent school. Such schools cannot selectively choose their students, and for-profit companies are allowed to start schools. The results show that this big idea has been startlingly successful.
The data show that while students in independent schools outperform their public school peers, the increased competition between the independent and public schools has resulted in a general rise in the performance of all students. Stockholm County Gov. Per Unckel, a former education minister, observes that in response to the voucher program, public school “headmasters tend to say that if [the independent schools] can do it, we can. … So, suddenly it starts a reform process also within the public system.”
The voucher program, however, has spawned more than just student-achievement benefits.
“Detailed analysis of cost items shows that independent schools spend a higher share of their revenues on education and teaching materials [than the public schools] and are more efficient in managing their costs,” notes Thomas Idergard, a policy director at the Swedish think tank Timbro. Further, Mr. Unckel says that under the voucher program, “we have a more engaged group of parents now taking responsibility, not for the running of the schools, but for their kids’ behavior, for the choice their kids are actually making.”
Mrs. Ravitch decries school reform “that relies on the power of incentives and competition” while nostalgically extolling the government-run status quo that has ruined the lives of too many children. In contrast, based on Sweden’s groundbreaking experience, Mr. Idergard gives this advice to U.S. policymakers: “The one and overall lesson is that competition is a key factor in raising educational standards in the future.” Mrs. Ravitch’s big surrender is no substitute for big ideas that work.