Richard Rothstein Answers the Response

Richard Rothstein Answers the Response

Much that Allen Graubard writes would be fair if stated with less exaggeration: of course, public schools continue to track (although less than before); many (not all) high schools are authoritarian (though there’s variety within schools); basic skills tests are insufficient (but standardized tests are now more “open-ended”), and so on.

Policy entails trade-offs. It’s not simply good vs. evil. Achieving one progressive goal may make achieving others difficult. I’m especially concerned with Graubard’s claim that “choice for parents and students within the public system would support more progressive reform.”

Choice would support more fully progressive schools, but would also segregate (by race, class, ideology, culture). That’s why progressives who toy with public choice programs find it necessary to restrict them: imposing race/ethnic quotas, giving preference to students from designated neighborhoods, requiring all parents to designate choices, soliciting students from underrepresented groups, and so on. In fact, these programs are not what conservative choice-advocates have in mind, so it can be irresponsible for progressives to promote “choice” when it’s certain to be misinterpreted.

I applaud Graubard’s advocacy of progressive reform within regular public schools. But this has not been the consistent message of “alternative school” advocates whose viewpoint Graubard promotes. As he makes clear, the “alternative school” movement began as a withdrawal to the private domain. Today, “charters” and choice make essentially private endeavors available within the public system. As Graubard put it in his 1972 book, Free the Children:

Many experimental alternative schools within the public school system are now beginning. . . . However, they are necessarily enmeshed in the public school bureaucracy and are under various constraints and pressures because of this. In the private free schools (the subject of this book) one finds a situation of real independence. These institutions are built by people who have not asked educational “experts” to design or approve an “experimental program,” people who have not waited for the educational professionals to form committees and study groups to evaluate by “cost-benefit” analysis the most efficient and realistic technique of reform.

This contemptuous view of public accountability is identical to words heard today from conservative opponents of all public institutions. It has not been “alternative school” reformers’ intent to make common cause with antidemocratic reactionaries. But to avoid being misused, progressives should repudiate the antipublic rhetoric that has been part of their ...