- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

School choice remains one of the most contentious issues in American education. But the debates are not just about whether we should have school choice, but what sort of choice should be offered parents and students.
Two recent books offer sharply contrasting looks at how school choice should be implemented. In Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Brookings Institution Press, $29.95, 410 pages), Terry M. Moe argues that choice should be limited to low-income families. John Merrifield's The School Choice Wars (Scarecrow Press, $45, 199 pages) calls for a more radical change: a fully comparative market between private and state schools.
Mr. Moe, a Stanford University political scientist, is best known as the coauthor of "Politics, Markets, and America's Schools," a 1990 work which was one of the first books to take school choice seriously. In his new book, a semi-sequel to the earlier one, Mr. Moe decides to look at public opinion research to see what sort of school choice (if any) Americans want. The result is a disappoinment.
Some of what Mr. Moe has to say is quite interesting. He shows that most polls do a very poor job in finding out what Americans really think about their schools. In part, this is due to a long-standing finding of survey research, namely that most Americans don't care very much about politics. Moreover, the author shows how pollsters can mis-phrase questions to provide distorted results. For example, one popular annual poll about schools asks respondents if they favor students being able to go to private schools "at public expense." Not surprisingly, most respondents to this poll say they are opposed to vouchers.
But Mr. Moe, having raised skepticism about other polls, then offers for three-quarters of the book a fine-grain analysis of a poll he conducted in 1995, which he claims shows that Americans want vouchers for poor people, but oppose notions that would enable parents to use their tax dollars to send children to private schools. Yet if most Americans aren't that political and haven't thought that much about vouchers, why should we believe that the people in Mr. Moe's study are capable of giving sophisticated analysis to an issue they haven't thought much about?And why should we assume that a six-year-old poll represents current public opinion about vouchers?
If he had published his findings in 1995, Mr. Moe's analysis might have made an interesting article. But as a book it is very long, tendentious and adds nothing to the school choice debate. (And surely someone among the six foundations and one corporation who paid for the book, and over 20 people who reviewed the manuscript, should have told Mr. Moe that spending over 300 pages analyzing a single poll was a bad idea.)
By contrast, Mr. Merrifeld's "The School Choice Wars" is a sharp, punchy, action-oriented book. The author, an economist at the University of Texas (San Antonio), appears to have read — and cited — every article and study on school choice ever written. He argues that school choice activists have, for most of the decade , seriously compromised their mission. In his view, choice advocates "ignore evidence that major reforms are achieved in a cold turkey, blitzkrieg fashion." His goal is rapidly to have a competitive market in education, in the same way that Eastern Europe, freed from Soviet tyranny, implemented capitalism.
Mr. Merrifeld makes many interesting points.He argues that most of the money spent analyzing the school choice experiments in Milwaukee and Clevelend has been wasted, since these programs offer a tiny number of students a very limited choice of schools, and thus offer little guidance as to what a system of fully portable vouchers would be like. He is also correct in his claim that teachers are not an anti-choice bloc; many teachers, he believes, are frustrated by intense bureaucracy of the public schools and would be happy to create private schools if they had more freedom.
The conclusions Mr. Merrifield makes are debatable. Like it or not, our republic today is a place where change occurs gradually, not rapidly. The education establishment is a well entrenched, well funded foe of reform. But Mr. Merrifield's cobweb-clearing book should rally the spirits of school choice activists and encourage them to fight harder.

What's to be done about educating amoral teenage boys who are determined to become career criminals? These "superpredators" are an increasingly severe problem. Some answers about what to do about vice-loving youth are promised — but not delivered — in Daniel Robb's Crossing the Water: Eighteen Months on an Island Working With Troubled Boys — A Teacher's Memoir (Simon and Schuster, $24, 287 pages).
Mr. Robb worked at Penikese, a private school on a remote island near Cape Cod, Mass., which takes tough young criminals and tries to straighten them out through hard work and some teaching. But from Mr. Robb's account, these youths, after spending a period without television, music (except for three hours a day) and a car, invariably get sent back to the courts. Because these boys don't spend very much time at Penikese and aren't tracked after they leave, we don't get to see how they grow, develop, or change (so far as that goes). At best, Mr. Robb can get one or two perfunctory, obscenity-laden conversations out of the boys before they disappear for life.
Lacking good material, the author fills the book with a memoir of his own troubled life. Mr Robb, who writes the sort of inward-looking, angst-ridden, soul-bearing prose produced by people who have taken too many writing courses, has the potential to be an interesting writer. But in "Crossing the Water," which is his first book, he fails to show whether troubled urban youths can become virtuous, and how that might be achieved.

Martin Morse Wooster is an associate editor of "The American Enterprise" and the author of "Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds."


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