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the Body Politic
Vol. 4, No. 2 - February 1994, Page 23
Copyright © 1994, 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Anne Bower

School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education
By Peter W. Cookson
Yale University Press, 1994
School Choice is available from the Body Politic

The headlines have screamed, pundits pontificated, and parents fretted all because American education is in serious trouble. We've "saved the whales", now what can be done to save our children?

One of the most commonly proscribed tonics for our sick educational system is "school choice". Practically everyone from former U.S. Education Department executives, to Presidents, to Religious Right leaders, to national teachers organizations have a plan. What do the different plans really mean? How can you evaluate the worth of each plan? What are real life experiences with school choice? Is there a "best" way to educate America's children?

Until now, answering those questions was daunting, even for the most devoted parent or caring administrator or teacher. In March of 1994, Peter Cookson's book, School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education will aid parents, teacher, principles, and preachers in sorting out the various options of school reform. In 150 pages, Professor Cookson of Adelphi University, endeavors to put, "the school choice movement in its historical and contemporary contexts, to describe the major choice plans through case studies, to analyze the outcomes of schools choice, and to examine the underlying assumptions of the market model of educational reform." He succeeds!

Professor Cookson's book can be read on two levels. There is information about the various types of choice plans and the relationship between schools and student achievement. Secondly, the linkage between the school choice movement and the different elements in American society is also examined. In chapter 1, Prof. Cookson explains the vocabulary of the different choice plans, while asking the question, "Why choice now? What particular elements of American society and culture give credibility to the belief that competition is more likely than cooperation to improve schools?"

Chapter 2 deals with the "reformers and revolutionaries" who want to disassemble or at least deregulate public education, including Ronald Reagan who promised during his presidential election campaign to dismantle the Department of Education. Chapter 3 takes an honest "up close and personal" look at the realities of different choice programs implemented across the country. Many of these programs have surfaced in the choice mythology as sterling examples of the benefits to parents when they choose a child's school.

According to Prof. Cookson, some programs, such as efforts in Minnesota, seem to have that rare combination of affirming rights of the individual while fostering a sense of community. However, one urban school set up to help African-Americans complete their high school education is located in the basement of an old building, and has no functioning plumbing in the science lab. Even in Minnesota, not every plan is a star pupil.

In Chapter 4, Prof. Cookson dissects the education research data "proving" that choice makes better students. He finds the data, in many instances, "unreliable and unconvincing." Chapter 5, The Stark Utopia: The Market as Messiah, goes to the heart of the controversy. How do we balance our need for community in a democratic, individualist society? What part does consumerism play in educating our children? Prof. Cookson has some sobering words on the subject of using "rational choice" as the determining factor in educating children.

"There is nothing linear or uncomplicated about the process by which people choose schools, and there is very little rational about preference formation. Rational choice is a kind of grand illusion of order in what is, in fact, a complicated, power-oriented, and sometimes chaotic world. In sum, the theory of rational choice is an economic theory that may be applicable to price structures and even, to some degree, to supply and demand, but it is far too simplistic to cover all human decision-making processes. Human beings are often impulsive, petty, and stubborn, especially when it comes to their children. In the final analysis, the psychological characteristics of human beings and the social constraints placed on them by culture and power, make the theory of rational choice unconvincing at best."

It should be understood that Prof. Cookson is not against school choice. In the final chapter he offers what he believes to be a fair program which has the best chance of remaking American education for the betterment of students, parents, schools, and society. His primary concern is equality of choice for all students, no matter their race, gender, or social class. Prof. Cookson, who has worked in public and private education, is concerned that parents are able to choose a school, not for its status, but for its ability to educate their child to take his or her place in society. He says of choice,

"Rational-choice theories that ignore the significance of social stratification and the symbolic importance of cultural capital treat preference formation as though it occurred in a social vacuum. This is a dangerous intellectual blind spot because if we do not recognize the structural inequalities that shape educational decision-making, we are likely to produce educational systems that increase inequality rather than provide channels of mobility for youngsters from poor and disadvantaged homes."

Many school choice advocates, including some from the Religious Right, have bowed before the altar of market driven schools. Peter Cookson makes us see that some types of choice have feet of clay. His reasoned and reasonable ideas will inform anyone concerned about the future of American education. If you do not have an ideology to peddle, or an axe to grind, Prof. Cookson's book may become the sextant you can turn to while charting your position in the troubled waters of school choice.

In my estimation, Prof. Cookson, in investigating the "soul" of the education controversy, has written a "Bible" for those struggling to define their position on this most crucial issue.

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