Freedom and School Choice

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today is the release of Freedom and School Choice in American Education, a new collection of essays on the purpose and direction of the school choice movement. Your JPGB favorites – Jay, Matt and myself – along with Andrew Coulson, George Clowes, Sheldon Richman, Pauline Dixon & James Tooley, and Brad Thompson lay out our diverse viewpoints on what we think the guiding vision for educational freedom in America ought to be, and what the school choice movement ought to do as a consequence. Paul Peterson provides the foreword.

What’s particularly valuable about this book, I think, is how it gives expression to the very different paths by which people come to hold educational freedom as an aspiration, and then connects those aspirational paths to the practical issues that face the movement in the short term. Jay comes to educational freedom with an emphasis on accountability and control; against the Amy Gutmanns of the world who want to set up educational professionals as authority figures to whom parents must defer, Jay wants to put parents back in charge of education. Matt comes to educational freedom with an emphasis on alleviating unjustified inequalities; against the aristocrats and social Darwinists of the world who aren’t bothered by the existence of unjustified inequalities, Matt wants social systems to maximize the growth of opportunities for those least likely to have access to them. And I come to educational freedom with an emphasis on the historical process of expanding human capacities, especially as embodied in America’s entrepreneurial culture; agaisnt all forms of complacency, I want America to continue leading the world in inventing ever better ways of flourishing the full capacities of humanity. And each of the other contributors has his or her own aspirational path.

This leads to an interesting constellation of agreements and disagreements about short-term tactics. Matt and I both emphasize the role of school choice in empowering entrepreneurs to invent new models. Matt emphasizes this because he knows it’s the only way to deliver better services to underserved populations; for me it’s about inventing the future for the nation as a whole. Matt wants to deliver a better education to kids now sitting in educational warehouses in Compton because he’s outraged at the injustice of a system that keeps kids in educational warehouses; my strongest motive for delivering a better education to those kids is because I want to unlock their potential to make a productive contribution to everyone.

Of course I share Matt’s outrage at injustice, and I’m sure he shares my aspiration to unlock the constructive potential of kids in Compton. Yet in important ways we end up coming down differently on tactics because we give primacy to different motives. Matt wants the school choice movement to focus on models targeted to underserved populations; he argues this is not only more just, but also has the greatest potential to demonstrate to a watching world how school choice can transform seemingly hopeless situations. But I argue agaisnt moving in that direction, preferring instead to push for more universal programs, because I’m worried school choice is getting trapped in a tiny niche that will, in the long run, undermine its ability to serve the larger goal of helping everyone flourish – not only because the programs end up being poorly designed, but because it isolates them from the mainstream of American culture.

On the other hand, Jay shares my orientation toward universal vouchers as the desirable model; he doesn’t seem to see anything special in targeted vouchers the way Matt does. Yet Jay strongly dissents from my desire to move forcefully toward universal vouchers in the short term; tactically, Jay is with Matt in that he wants to stick with narrow programs. That’s because Jay is a gradualist; he’s worried that trying to win too much too fast will do more harm than good. At the risk of some interpretive strech, I think this is ultimately because, as I’ve noted above, Jay is fundamentally worried about power. He wants to overthrow the Gutmann dictatorship, but he knows that overthrowing it rapidly would require us to become (or to make common cause with) revolutionaries. And revolutionaries are notoriously difficult to constrain. Jay doesn’t want to overthrow the Gutmann dictatorship by setting up a Forster dictatorship in its place. (Yeah, I know, it’s bizarre – but hey, it takes all kinds to make a world.)

Special thanks to the Foundation for Educational Choice and the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism for co-sponsoring the conference that led to the book, and to Brad, who runs the Clemson Institute and co-edited the book with me.

If you’re going to be in Seattle for the Aug. 23-26 meeting of the State Policy Network, join us on Aug. 23 before the SPN meeting starts for a special event featuring Paul Peterson and the Freedom and School Choice contributors. It promises to be a lively time and well worth your attendance – and not just for the free food:

Kick off your SPN experience with the leading national figures in this year’s most successful policy movement – school choice and parental control of education. The Foundation for Educational Choice invites you to a half-day event on Aug. 23, with lunch provided. Featured speaker Paul Peterson of Harvard University will equip you with the latest research findings, and our panel of experts will provide up-to-the-minute discussion of political trends, innovative policy approaches, and the strategic and tactical issues every school choice advocate needs to know about. Plus, get a peek at the groundbreaking new book from Palgrave, Freedom and School Choice in American Education, co-sponsored by the Foundation for Educational Choice and the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.

The event is free – and hey, did I mention there’ll be food? (Don’t ask me how an organization founded by Milton Friedman ended up serving people a free lunch; it’s the mystery of market economics.)

The event will start at 12:00 so you have plenty of time to fly in beforehand, and we’ll be done with plenty of time to get over to SPN to register before it starts. To register for the pre-SPN event, contact Keri Hunter at

9 Responses to Freedom and School Choice

  1. matthewladner says:

    Great job Greg.

    Just to clarify my confusing and possibly confused position, I do support and even prefer universal programs. I just think that it is vital to reflect equity concerns in program design through mechanisms other than means-testing- sliding scales to provide more money to lower income children, special needs funding following the child for children with disabilities, etc.

    Often we are not in a position to seriously debate a universal program, and in those situations, I support designing programs to help the most disadvantaged students.

  2. Greg,

    You did a great job summarizing, just like you did with editing. You correctly capture my concern with dictatorships of all kinds as well as my preference for gradualism.

    When you describe my motivation as accountability and control, readers might think that is control by a central authority. Just to be clear, my desire is to have parents control the education of their children just as they control the raising of those children.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Right – I mean that you are motivated by concern over accountability and control. And you’re not against them, you’re for them – you want them to be exercised by parents!

  3. Ben Boychuk says:

    Is there a paperback edition?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Not to my knowledge. Sorry! Palgrave has to put food on the table somehow.

      • Ben says:

        Hate to ask, but is there a way to obtain a complimentary review copy for someone who would write about the book and host a podcast interview with a co-editor? Looks good, but too pricey for our tight budget here. Thanks, Greg!

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Yes, anyone who wants a review copy should contat Palgrave books. Email me at greg at edchoice dot org and I’ll give you direct contact information.

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