Happy 90th Birthday, Dr. Sowell!

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Dr. Thomas Sowell–economist, public intellectual, author of more than 50 books, and living legend–turns 90 today, just days after releasing his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies. Schools of choice like charter schools are, in Sowell’s view, the best way to wipe out educational disparity.

As he notes in his new book, Sowell’s research into what makes schools successful, particularly for minorities, began decades ago. In 1974, The Public Interest published Sowell’s article, “Black Excellence: The Case of Dunbar High School,” on how a school run by members of the black community for children of the black community attained great success.

Sowell experienced such schools firsthand: he grew up in Harlem but got, in his view, a great education. He went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard followed by a graduate degree at Columbia and a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago, where he studied under the great Nobel laureate economist, Milton Friedman. (Although a Marxist at the time, Sowell’s views evolved and he eventually came to support free markets. He and Friedman became friends and Sowell is currently the Rose & Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.) Although relatively poor and persecuted, Sowell’s research found that the black community was able to provide a high-quality education for their young when given the opportunity.

Sowell returned to this theme in a 1981 debate about education on Firing Line with William F. Buckley. Nearly four decades later, it’s amazing how little the objections to school choice have changed. After Sowell proposed empowering families with school choice via any of several mechanisms (vouchers, open enrollment, tuition tax credits), his interlocutor immediately objected that “uneducated” parents would be unable to choose wisely for their children–an objection recently echoed by elitist politicians and professors alike. Sowell punctured this paternalism with a history lesson (how freed slaves who had been forbidden to learn to read ensured that the next generation was educated) and his own personal history. “I think you’d have very few blacks who finished college, including myself,” he explained, “if they had to have college-educated parents to send them there.”

In a 1986 debate (alongside Friedman and Buckley), Sowell addressed an assertion by Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers that what the education system needed was basically more of the same just with more money–essentially the same tune AFT has been singing ever since (even though the racial achievement gap that Shanker claimed would narrow has actually widened despite a massive increase in per-pupil spending). Sowell wasn’t buying it, pointing to the narrower racial achievement gap in the private schools. Debater Bill Honig retorted that a study had found that when private and public schools employed the same methodologies, the results were the same. Sowell immediately countered that this proved his point:

I don’t think there’s any magic about the institutional nature, I think the magic is about competition… If you’re saying to me that the private schools and public schools get the same result when they do the same thing, and you’re saying to me that the private schools close the gap between blacks and whites more, then you’re saying to me that the public schools aren’t doing what they should be doing.

In other words: incentives matter. On net, schools that do the same things with similarly situated students will have similar results no matter the sector. What matters is what schools do, and what they do is a function of who decides. As Sowell wrote in Intellectuals and Society, “The most important decision is who makes the decision.” When parents get to decide where their children attend school, their priorities will be reflected in the school system. When politicians and distant bureaucrats decide, the system will reflect their priorities instead. When parents get to decide, change can happen immediately if they decide to switch schools. When politicians and bureaucrats decide, change happens on their timeline.

Then as now, opponents of parental choice want parents to be patient. “Just give us more time and more money and we’ll get this fixed for you right away!” At the end of this exchange, Sowell channeled the frustration and righteous anger of parents with this “wait and see” approach:

You mention these various horrible things that are going to happen… if we have privatization, and that we should never resort to that until we have exhausted all forms of change in the public schools — how many thousands of years will it take to exhaust all possible forms of change in the public schools?

More than three decades later, most families are still waiting.

There are many more choices available today than in the 1980s, but options still remain elusive for too many families, especially low-income families of color. Untold numbers of children are on waitlists for charter schools or scholarships, options that should and would be available but for political opposition.

Fortunately, there are signs of progress. Even with state legislatures being shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah passed a new tax-credit scholarship for students with special needs and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just signed into law the largest expansion of a school voucher program in the nation’s history.

Let us hope that by Dr. Sowell’s 100th birthday, all families will have access to the learning environments that work best for their children.

5 Responses to Happy 90th Birthday, Dr. Sowell!

  1. sstotsky says:

    Please give us a link to Dr. Sowell’s essay on old Dunbar High School in DC..

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      I don’t have one. He cited it in his new book.

      • sstotsky says:

        I found a couple of relevent links on Google Chrome. How that high school was killed after the Brown v Board of Education is a fascinating story in itself. The teachers in old Dunbar HS scoured the city and found enough students to enroll for its first-rate curriculum. “White liberals” killed the school in the name of desegregation.

    • Momof4 says:

      Available via Duckduckgo, with search term ‘Thomas Sowell essay on Dunbar HS”

  2. Greg Forster says:

    “when private and public schools employed the same methodologies, the results were the same.”

    Amazing how many people, then and now, are as a matter of logic so close to realizing the truth, but will not allow themselves to realize it.

    I once had to stand there for a long time as a legislator on the other side of the issue explained to me that her single mother had put her through private school by working two jobs, and that opportunity was very important to her and she was very grateful to her mother for providing it, and this somehow (I forget how) proved that we shouldn’t enact school choice programs. I just said “I don’t think it’s right that your mother had to sacrifice so much to give you an opportunity that other people have as a matter of course.” She was silenced.

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