“That which purifies us is trial, and

trial is by what is contrary.”

John Milton, Areopagitica

My thanks to those eminent school choice advocates Larry Sand of California and collaborators Robert Enlow and Jason Bedrick of EdChoice in Indiana. I recommend reading their recent critiques here and here of the design of those half-dozen model statutes for choice that Stephen Sugarman and I pumped out from the 1960s until the 21st century.

These critics worry that our models are too complex, hence, self-defeating at the polls or in the legislature; and they fret even more that we are focused principally upon lower-income parents.

For them, the structure must be simple, as Milton Friedman imagined it, with equal subsidy for every child of every family in the same grade and with little or no regulation of private school admission policy or recruitment strategies.

Sugarman and I make them unhappy, because we would have participating schools set aside their unchosen applications for a final random selection of a fraction of its entries, giving the unchosen child of the poor a chance at subsidized admission. We would also require the school to make itself known in the open market, trying thereby to assure that lower-income parents have the chance to learn what their new responsibility requires in the way of sophistication about their options.

Our critics recognize the suffering of the lower-income family under the status quo, but they insist that this problem is best addressed by a Friedman-blessed system of subsidy that includes all parents, even those who least need it. It is this alone, they believe, that will bring the civic liberation of the poor.

They are best, also we hear, because this pure system which they favor is politically the most saleable; any focus upon the poor is unpopular.

I must have overlooked some such rousing success of the pure market approach in capturing the voting hearts of our 50 state electorates. For many years, the Friedman folks in many states have been running ballot initiatives for universal vouchers. Their level of success is unimpressive.

Still, this issue of the universality of any system of subsidized choice seems to me the lesser of two central questions.

So, let us try another plebiscite offering vouchers to the rich and poor alike. The core dispute will then be the nature and extent of state government regulation of participating schools.

Sugarman and I have long felt concern over such matters as admission policy advertising (targeted or universal), procedural rules for expulsion and so on. At least in the short run, parents who have never chosen will need to acquire some of the sophistications of the middle class.

I can understand how pure market minds could continue to draw the line at certain forms and degree of regulation; so would I. But, just maybe, they could help to make it “efficient” in the way least intrusive of the participating private school. What puzzles me is their reluctance even to consider how the untutored parental mind needs help to become a wise consumer and how the seller must rescue such mothers and fathers with simple information about just who and what this particular school is.

Most important, if a school participates, it should be ready at the end of the admission process to take a few children – say 15% – at random, children whom they had not already picked from among their applicant pool. In short, it has seemed fair and rational to ask the seller to undertake a wee bit of “social integration.”

Finally, and most important, we should ask these pure market folks ever to keep in mind that decisions about design will be made by 50 individual state governments. Might it not be to our civic good as a nation to watch and learn from the experience of those states with a variety of statutory models just what is popular and what works?

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