I had to facilitate the discussion for the class I’m taking on school privatization on Chapters 1 and 2 of Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, the classic book on vouchers and education reform by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe. I thought I’d post my notes here:

The Book’s Political Context

  • Published by Brookings in 1990
  • George H. W. Bush was POTUS, and there was growing talk of education reform, specifically vouchers (in 1990, Lamar Alexander became Secretary of Education. He was former governor of Tennessee and is currently a US Senator from the state)
  • Relevant still today (as many of the arguments you’ll hear by education reformers echo those made in this book)

Think Tanks and the Privatization of Knowledge Industry and Public Policy

  • Brookings, founded in 1916 – “the first private organization devoted to analyzing public policy issues at the national level.” It is often seen as the premier think tank in Washington DC (which is important if we think about the imprimatur, if you will, that the publication of the book gave to vouchers and education reform)
  • Economists at Brookings were commissioned by President Roosevelt to study the causes of the Great Depression. They opposed the NRA, the National Recovery Administration, the agency created by Roosevelt to address unfair competition (including exploitative labor practices)
  • 501(c)3 – non-profit so purportedly non-partisan
  • Prominent funders include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, the LEGO Foundation, and the State of Qatar
  • Both Chubb and Moe were later fellows at the Hoover Institution, a libertarian think tank at Stanford University

The “Research” Context

  • A Nation at Risk (1983)
  • The Coleman Report (1966) – one of the largest sociological studies in history, with a sample size of over 650,000 students. It found that students’ background and socioeconomic status were key in determining students’ educational outcomes (more, that is, than schools or teachers). It also found enormous gaps in achievement based on race.

The Arguments (Chapters 1 and 2)

  • “The Root of the Problem” – poor academic achievement. They use many of the same arguments in A Nation at Risk – arguments based on questionable statistics (or questionable interpretation of statistics): that SAT scores, for example, have fallen
  • “The Root of the Problem” – democratic control of schools. Government control of schools is centralized, bureaucratic. Schools are “open systems” – that is they respond to their environments. As democratically controlled entities, schools are responsive to constituents, not consumers (that is, parents do not have a louder voice than others in the community, in the district, in the school building). Reform – “tinkering with the system,” if you will – cannot fix the problems with schools. (Indeed, that’s what’s led to bureaucracy.)
  • Markets versus the government. “Democracy is essentially coercive.” Markets, they contend, are decentralized. Markets allow parents and students to act as consumers, not as constituents, where they will have a more powerful role. Public schools are monopolies. Private schools are insulated from politics, and they can therefore focus on what matters – student achievement.
  • The organization of schools. The emphasis, in many ways, is on school leadership (i.e. the principal).

Analysis / Questions

  • Little attention is paid here to the context of schools or systems. Are schools so monolithic? (And are markets really so varied, so unencumbered by bureaucracy or power? So de-centralized?)
  • Why has this book held sway for so many years now, even if we can argue that it’s built on some shaky statistical analysis and some clearly ideological arguments?

Audrey Watters


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