The tragedy of Jonathan Kozol

Jonathan Kozol has spent a good deal of his life writing eloquently and passionately about children and the sad state of education in America.  The depths of his passion and caring are to be admired and applauded.  The tragedy is that his eloquence has often been put to ill use attacking the one reform that would really help – private schools and school choice.  Kozol’s good intentions, therefore, earn him no free pass from me.

In a recent interview he said:

[Private schools] starve the public school system of the presence of well-educated,
politically effective parents to fight for equity for all kids.

Kozol’s argument can be summed up thusly:

Letting people escape over the Berlin Wall starves the East German system of the presence of well-educated,
politically effective people to fight for the equity of all East Germans.

Barricading parents into the poor schools their government offers them is like barricading people into communist East Germany.  People, even well-educated, politically effective people, should not be used as tools to further some social engineering scheme.

But is the argument even true?  Kozol, draws on Hirschman’s great book Exit, Voice and Loyalty, but like many who read that book he shows no sign of understanding any of its subtleties.

Yes, exit and voice can be substitutes and reducing exit may increase voice.  But more often than not, voice and exits are complements.  When you complain of delay where is your voice more likely to be heard; at a restaurant or at the department of motor vehicles?

It’s the threat of exit that makes people listen.

Moreover, shutting down exit does not guarantee that voice will arise.  The people whose children are stuck in the worst-performing schools have neither voice nor exit – they are like the people of New Orleans who did not have the means to escape nor the political power to compel help from others.

Finally, we go to the data.  Kozol’s argument implies that places with more exit should have worse public schools.  But in fact a large body of research shows that the opposite is true.  Places with more choice – whether that choice comes from private schools, charter schools, or even choice among public schools – have better schools.  Exit and the threat of exit makes educators listen.

But will Kozol listen?  Sadly, I think not because his fundamental opposition to vouchers is not economic but aesthetic.  He says:

Vouchers elevate the lowest instincts of humanity over the most beautiful instincts.

Need I quote Adam Smith in response?


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