Coulson on Brookings Report

Over on the Cato blog, Andrew Coulson has a thoughtful post on the recent Brookings report on school choice which I  helped craft.  For the most part I agree with what Andrew has to say.  I agree that there is considerable international and historical evidence that could have been included in the Brookings report but was not.  I also agree that certain compromises on school choice can be counter-productive, particularly over the long run.

The disagreement I have with Andrew is that he is treating the Brookings report as if it were a piece of scholarship rather than the political document that it really is.  I do not say this to disparage the report, which I helped craft and endorse.  We self-consciously viewed our task in writing the report as trying to present policy options on school choice that would be viable in the current political climate and potentially attractive to the Obama administration.

Once you understand that, it is easier to understand why we would leave out most international evidence — it is generally considered irrelevant or unpersuasive by most current policy elites.  They may well be mistaken in dismissing this set of evidence, as Andrew argues, but that is their view so we didn’t waste their time or ours by reviewing that evidence.

It is also easier to understand why we didn’t advocate unregulated education markets.  That simply isn’t going to happen in the current political climate, so we didn’t bother with it.  Instead we advocated for a variety of compromises on expanding choice and competition within a regulated framework.

Of course, then we are left vulnerable to Andrew’s point that these compromises may be counterproductive, particularly in the long run.  My only response to that is that incrementalism is our only feasible strategy for getting the kind of choice and competition we really need.  While we must always be vigilent about the dangers of certain compromises, I think we have no choice but to try to build on incremental reforms.

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One Response to Coulson on Brookings Report

  1. Andrew has a reply here: http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2010/02/16/school-choice-realpolitik-brookings/

    He makes good points but I think he gives too little credit to incrementalism. Contrary to his claim, the Emancipation Proclamation was an incremental step toward the 13th Amendment. It only freed slaves in areas engaged in rebellion. And Lincon’s stated policy during the campaign was simply to contain slavery to where it already existed until it would whither away over time. That was an incremental step toward the Emancipation Proclamation.

    The same kind of incrementalism characterized the right for women to vote. They won the right in certain states and leveraged those gains to win the right in others until it was finally made part of the constitution.

    Taking incremental steps made all of these big victories for freedom possible.

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