Rick Hess Article Makes Case for Expanding Frontiers in School Reform

Today I don’t have a lot to say, but am hoping my school choice and market-reform supporting friends take a dive into Rick Hess’s new National Affairs piece titled “Does School Choice Work?” While Dr. Jay Greene is correct that we should be optimistic over the progress made thus far in building support for school choice, Hess offers some serious food for thought about what we’ve learned and where we can go from here.

With little comment, I want to share a few provocative remarks from Rick Hess to spur your interest in reading his long but important article:

Competition matters only when it pinches, and the reality is that competition in K-12 education has not yet been given a robust test.


The biggest mistake pro-market school reformers have made can thus be put simply: They have mistaken choice for competition. The conviction that school choice constitutes, by itself, a market solution has too often led reformers to skip past the hard work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities that choice-based reform can provide.


The insistence that school choice simply “works” helped put a saleable, amiable face on the tough medicine that champions of school reforms sought to deliver — but often at the cost of silencing discussion about how to make choice-based reform work well. In fact, to even question the claim that “choice works” has frequently been deemed a betrayal by choice advocates; this has left the field to a coterie of enthusiasts eager to talk about moral urgency, but disinclined to address incentives or market dynamics.

You get the picture. Taking these representative passages together, Hess essentially argues that choice is a critical piece of the reform puzzle. But it has to be seen as part of a bigger picture of “deregulation” and transformation. I couldn’t possibly sum up all the thought-provoking arguments in Hess’s piece, but there are plenty of serious ones that need to be wrestled with.

I’ll close by noting that the author offers six steps to advance the reform agenda more effectively. For now, I’ll park on number five:

It is not essential for every single consumer to have the knowledge or inclination to make savvy decisions — but providers do need to expect that the quality of their performance will be known, and will matter. Today, unfortunately, it is enormously difficult for parents in most communities to get useful information on school quality….There is a gaping need for third parties to step up and play the role of a Zagat’s guide or Consumer Reports, providing accessible, independent information on K-12 schools. As these examples make clear, there is absolutely value in having multiple providers, perhaps focusing on different educational concerns or kinds of schools.

Well said. What he describes is exactly the sort of niche filled by our information-rich, parent-friendly School Choice for Kids website. While my Education Policy Center friends work to keep this great information tool up-to-date and spread the word in Colorado, it’s also important to remember there are always ways we can be more effective in advancing reform. Hess’s article gives some cause for reflection.