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Choice as a Moderating Move to the Center

By Terry Moe

In our commentary this week, Paul Hill and I propose that the nation move toward a "mixed model" of American education--a blended institutional system that is somewhere in-between the extremes of an all-government system and a free market system, and is designed to take advantage of what both government and markets have to offer.

You needn't be a free-market fanatic to recognize that choice and competition, when properly designed and regulated, have much to contribute--more options for families, stronger incentives for schools, greater potential for dynamism and innovation. Yet the current education system, which is roughly a hundred years old, is an extreme institutional form--an all-government system--that fails to take any serious advantage of these contributions.

Such a system may have made sense a century ago, as the Progressives struggled to eliminate spoils and corruption by installing a more professional set of arrangements. But today, the all-government system they bequeathed us is a relic of the past. And by embracing it as somehow normal and natural, we allow ourselves to be prisoners of that past.

Consider a simple thought experiment. Suppose we could go back to square one and design the nation's education system from the ground up, in any way we thought most productive. Would we build an extreme, all-government system in which choice and competition are virtually absent? I venture to say that, for most people who are actively involved in the nation's reform movement, the answer is clearly no.

In New Orleans, the thought experiment became reality. Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city's entire school system, along with its protective power structure. For the first time in modern history, state and local policy makers were literally free to build a new education system from the ground up in a major U.S. city. Question: did they try to recreate an all-government system like the one that had been destroyed? Answer: are you kidding? Absolutely not. They created a dramatically different kind of system: a system filled with charter schools--but containing some government-run schools as well--with every child attending a school of choice and schools competing for children. What they did, in other words, was to embrace a mixed model of public education.

A mixed model, as the New Orleans case well shows, is nothing like a "free market." On the contrary, it is designed by government policy makers, it operates under government rules, and it represents an attempt by government to use choice and competition to social advantage while still maintaining ultimate authority. Its essence--and strength--is the balance it strikes in combining the advantages of both government and markets.

New Orleans, of course, was freed from its institutional past by a devastating force of nature, an event no one would want to see happen ever again, anywhere. The challenge, then, is for other districts and states--in the absence of such devastation--to somehow escape from their institutional pasts too. And to move toward centrist solutions that strike a better, more reasonable, more productive balance between government and markets.

Terry M. Moe is the William Bennett Munro Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. His most recent books are Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools (Brookings Institution Press, forthcoming April 2011) and Liberating Learning: Politics, Technology, and the Future of American Education with John Chubb (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

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