The Moynihan Challenge: 5 Years Later

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Five-years ago yesterday, I posed a “Moynihan Challenge” to school choice opponents: provide a couple of random assignment studies showing academic harm resulting for private choice programs and I will buy you a steak dinner.

The response from choice opponents after 5 years:

Daniel Patrick Moynihan inspired the challenge with a story from his book Miles to Go. During testimony to Senator Moynihan asked Laura D’Andrea Tyson of the Clinton Administration for two supportive studies justifying the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a favored program.

Moynihan received two studies the following day, but Moynihan did something strange and actually read the studies. Moynihan noted that both studies actually concluded similar programs had failed to produce any positive results.

In response, Moynihan wrote the following in a letter to Tyson:

In the last six months I have been repeatedly impressed by the number of members of the Clinton administration who have assured me with great vigor that something or other is known in an area of social policy which, to the best of my understanding, is not known at all. This seems to me perilous. It is quite possible to live with uncertainty, with the possibility, even the likelihood that one is wrong. But beware of certainty where none exists. Ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance.

Faced with a choice critic at the Arizona Republic displaying what I regarded as an insistence on ignorance, I invited him to put up or shut up. I could produce multiple random assignment studies showing academic gains associated with private choice programs, if the critic could produce merely two I would pay him out a delicious steak dinner. I wrote:

If opponents of school choice can offer no proof to back their assertions, they deserve neither my steak nor anyone’s confidence, leaving everyone to wonder: where’s the beef?

I repeated the challenge to the nation on NRO without receiving anything resembling a serious reply.

Ah well, 5 years have passed, and the number of random assignment studies finding positive results from choice programs have continued to increase.

The opponents?

The technical term to describe what they have in terms of high-quality evidence: still zilcho.

8 Responses to The Moynihan Challenge: 5 Years Later

  1. allen says:

    Oh Matthew, you just don’t understand. Some beliefs are simply self-evidently true even if there are no facts to support the belief. Even if there are facts that contradict the belief.

    Parents, for instance, are too stupid to make decisions about their children’s education.

    Self-evidently true unless you’re rude enough to observe that teachers are quite often parents or that rich people are quite often parents.

    You might give teachers a pass since they’ve been to the fount of educational knowledge to drink deeply thereof but rich people must then make terrible choices for their children since, mostly, they haven’t been to ed schools.

  2. […] the opportunity to attend private school has been harmful? Well, to find out the answer, check out his post on Jay Greene’s blog […]

  3. George Mitchell says:

    The education reform debate has produced many wake-up calls regarding my naivete. For example, I once thought that serious research would play a decisive role in the education choice debate. As Matt Ladner, Greg Forster, Pat Wolf, and others have observed, the consensus of rigorous studies is that choice produces net benefits. Yet, it is very difficult to find any objective recognition of that in the mainstream news media. The safe route for reporters is to fall back on the “mixed” label. They do their readers a disservice.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    I agree that the role of research can’t be called “decisive.” But it also hasn’t been nothing. Research was how we won the war of ideas. As Jay and I have argued, the unions are now the tobacco lobby – still powerful, but no longer credible. And notice how big tobacco’s loss of credibility was followed by a steady decline in power. That’s why we’re winning so many more fights than we used to – see for example how we’re running up the score on poor Jay Mathews.

  5. George Mitchell says:

    Many (most?) education reporters are quite invested in the narrative that choice research is inconclusive.* It remains unclear what might change that dynamic.

    The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel beat writer recently validated a completely bogus test score report from state bureaucrats, a report that violates every tenet of scholarly research.

    *Just as they are heavily invested in the idea that class size research is definitive.

    • Patrick says:

      Most ed reporters are NooBs and don’t know what’s what. By the time they start getting a clue and begin realizing the very people that have spoon fed them information are full of BS (the education insiders), they get a promotion to a better and more prominent beat.

  6. Yes, George, but reporters are becoming much less influential.

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