- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008


By Chester E. Finn

Princeton University Press, $26.95, 305 pages


Of his former boss, New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Checker Finn says: “There was also something oppositional, even countercyclical, about Pat that tended to place him athwart the conventional wisdom and regnant political attitudes of the day.” The contrarian approach is a trait Chester E. “Checker” Finn adopted from the late senator, and it’s on display in the title of, and throughout, his new autobiography, “Troublemaker.” The book is a blow-by-blow account of Checker’s efforts to improve American schooling.

Often in the forefront of policymaking, and sometimes on the sidelines, Mr. Finn has had a firsthand view of education policy and those who make it. Throughout the book, he reflects candidly on the government officials, academics and outsider advocates — all roles Checker has played — who have wrestled with education issues “since Sputnik.”

Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike are criticized and praised as Checker measures their educational ideas against his own. With a cascade of names and insider drama, the book reads like “All the President’s Men,” Woodward and Bernstein’s account of the Watergate scandal, only with education bureaucrats replacing White House operatives.

The education saga is interwoven with details of his personal life, including family decisions over his own children’s education (they attended private schools), and accounts of global adventures had with his wife, Renu (who he met while assisting Moynihan, then U.S. Ambassador to India). Checker is restless and influential, and this condensed version of all his exploits sometimes feels frenetic. But either as a personal story or an education policy guidebook, “Troublemaker” is enjoyable and highly readable.

As he recounts his four decades in education, it becomes clear that sweeping societal changes have dramatically affected our school system. Crusaders for civil rights aligned with proponents of a more robust federal government to help create the Department of Education. “Special-Ed” and “ESL” (English as a second language), are now common vernacular in the world of American education. Testing and accountability have assumed primacy in discussions of education reform. But behind all the changes, it is also clear that the larger goals and disputes remain very much the same.

“The most enduring value conflict in American K-12 education is between partisans of the public school system and advocates of pluralism, competition, and choice,” Mr. Finn writes. This core disagreement about the best way to teach kids sets the stage for the circumstantial battles fought over education reform. Mr. Finn aligns himself with the school choice side. He and the D.C.-based Fordham Foundation, of which he is president, are ardent advocates of charter schools, what he calls “independent public schools of choice.” True to his temperament, he is quick to acknowledge when specific charter schools are failing to live up to expectations, and forthrightly acknowledges that some Fordham-run charter schools in Ohio are struggling.

Despite individual setbacks, Mr. Finn believes pluralism and competition can improve education. American school systems are sprawling and decentralized, and the federal government is ill-equipped to formulate policy and apply it to the nearly 100,000 public schools educating 50 million students across the nation: “I saw how clumsy and weak are Washington’s instruments for effecting changes in education; how seemingly good ideas, once translated into legislation and bureaucracy, often end up not working,” he writes. Finn is certain that nobody who knows Washington well would ask it to change schools directly. Better to perform solid research, set high, well-crafted standards and let parents, with local knowledge, select the school that best fits their children’s needs.

In advocating these policies, Mr. Finn has received assistance from like-minded philanthropists. Having spent much of his life doing education research, he knows the importance of private funding. Education philanthropists, by determining the cash flow to researchers and innovative schools, guide research and assist in its implementation. Many of the biggest philanthropic organizations make multiple appearances in the book: the John M. Olin Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Don and Doris Fisher Foundation. Mr. Finn offers particular applause for “the steady flow of expertly directed philanthropic dollars and intellectual encouragement from the Milwaukee-based [Lynde and Harry] Bradley Foundation,” which has turned the city of Milwaukee into a leading practitioner of school choice.

But philanthropy-funded research has not resolved the important value conflicts in education policy. A recent court ruling in California deemed it illegal for parents without state certification to homeschool their children. Does the common experience of a public school-education trump parents’ rights to teach their kids? Mr. Finn is sure to weigh in, using the criteria of choice and high standards as a measuring stick. And in today’s knowledge economy, the decisions we reach on education policy are fundamental.

Many readers of Mr. Finn’s book will be interested in his detailed account of the political and policy conflicts over public education and school choice. Others will be intrigued by the the books subtitle, “A Personal History of School Reform,” which echoes that of Moynihan’s autobiography: “Miles to Go: A Personal History of Social Policy.” Moynihan paraphrases the last lines of Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening; “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Mr. Finn approaches education with that sense of personal dedication, but the book is neither wistful nor weary. “Troublemaker” displays the energy and combativeness of a man who knows a good education can solve problems and improve lives.

Phil Brand is director of Education Watch at the Capital Research Center.

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