The Freedom to Innovate and the Future of Education

Richard Rothstein cites evidence that public schools have improved math scores at age 9 and 13, but not age 17. Thus whatever gains are being made in elementary and middle school are being lost in high school. Since 1973, K-12 educational expenditures have more than doubled; on a per-dollar basis, “investing” in public education now shows a thirty-five year trend of steadily decreasing returns. Based on these outcomes, Rothstein asks “what were we doing right … so we can do more of it?” Rothstein’s argument that educational quality should not be a concern due to steadily increasing global economic competition is even less convincing. In order to avoid criticizing public education, Rothstein has been reduced to arguing that education doesn’t matter:

“Workforce skills cannot determine how the wealth created by national productivity is distributed.”

“…the conclusion that [that the changing nature of work] would require radical changes in education was flawed.”

“The quality of our civic, cultural, community, and family lives demands school improvement, but barriers to unionization are a more important cause of low wages than the quality of workers’ education.”

Once upon a time liberals cared passionately about education as foundation for a meritocracy. Rothstein has concluded this Enlightenment ideal is a dead end.

Rather than give up our ideals, shouldn’t we reconsider our irrational attachment to government-managed schools? Dan Klein cites economist Robert Solow explaining why he doesn’t like school choice:

It isn’t for any economic reason; all the economic reasons favor school vouchers. It is because what made me an American is the United States Army and the public school system.[1]

There is a fierce loyalty towards the public school system that transcends all reason.

When it comes to market solutions, intellectuals are just plain bigoted. One can still find tens of thousands of volumes in academic libraries citing empirical evidence that communism was as effective at meeting human needs as is capitalism. Paul Samuelson’s thirteenth edition of his Principles of Economics, published in 1989, claimed that “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.”[2] Samuelson was right-of-center within academia. As late as September 1991, the American Political Science Association published claims that “the Soviet Union might be saved by a socialist revolution in the West as our capitalist economy goes into a tailspin.”[3]

After the fall of communism, even the most recalcitrant academics acknowledged that Hayek had been correct that governments cannot manage an economy successfully. And yet nearly twenty years later, the notion that governments can manage an education system remains a respectable notion. Many scholars believe that our experiments in school choice have failed to yield results. Gary Miron, a specialist in the evaluation of the charter school movement, states:

The rhetorical arguments and assumptions about charter schools claim that charter schools will use their autonomy to create focused learning communities and high levels of accountability and that this will result in higher levels of performance. The rhetorical arguments also claimed that charter schools would be innovative, create new professional opportunities for teachers, create new opportunities for community and parental involvement, and have positive impact on other schools by sharing innovative practices and by creating a competitive atmosphere. The rhetorical assumptions about charter schools largely have not been achieved.[4]

To his credit, he notes that the combination of the challenges of starting up a school, the lack of sufficient finances, and constraints on charter school autonomy have prevented charter schools from living up to their original promise. He cites NCLB requirements requiring common outcome measures and traditionally certified teachers, in particular, as unanticipated constraints on charter school autonomy.

After a career in both public and private education, in May of 2002 I moved to Angel Fire, New Mexico, to serve as the founding principal of Moreno Valley High School (MVHS), a charter high school. In a rural area not known for the quality of its education (a UNM-Taos professor told me point-blank that “northern New Mexico students are not capable of passing AP courses), we created an AP program that in the second year of the school ranked us among the top 200 public high schools in the nation and, in the third year, the thirty-sixth best public high school in the nation on the Washington Post Challenge Index. Although the ranking is based on the number of students who took AP tests divided by the number of graduating seniors, our students also achieved a score of 3 or higher at more than twice the rate of the national average. Because of our performance, and our innovative approach to getting there, AP New Mexico co-hosted training by our faculty for AP teachers statewide. Teachers moved from other states in order to teach at MVHS and parents moved from other states so that their children could attend MVHS.[5]

Thus when I read an academic like Miron contrasting the rhetoric of charter schools with the reality, I know that the “rhetoric” of charter schools can be achieved. I know exactly how to do it and could do it again, over and over again, across the country. And I know exactly why it has not been achieved on a broader basis — which has a lot to do with why I am no longer in K-12 education.

Despite a significant Soviet commitment to winning the IT race, by the mid-1980s it was estimated that any decent U.S. university had more computing power than the entire Soviet Union. This was achieved not by creating more rigorous government standards in the IT industry, but rather by allowing millions of college drop-outs to create the companies that changed the world. Indeed, had we restricted entry into the IT field to those with credentials from government-certified licensure programs and only allowed them to create computers according to the 1970s “best practices” as defined by the establishment, the IT industry of today would not be much farther along than it was in the 70s.

When college dropout Steve Jobs saw a new computer interface at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, he didn’t run tests to see how it compared to existing interfaces. He saw it, had a vision for where it could be taken, and set up shop with Wozniak to begin taking it there. Because the barriers to entry and to growth were minimal, he was able to change the world.

Of course, with minimal barriers to entry, there will be many failures. In order to decide whether we want successful educational innovations, we must first decide whether we are prepared to accept many experiments that fail. Had we not allowed the charter schools that we have already allowed, we would not now have the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Green Dot charter school chains. If we had allowed more experiments, and given them more freedom, then we would have had more outrageous failures — and perhaps deeper successes. The argument for educational freedom is not that any particular educator will innovate, or even that on average charter schools will be more innovative, but that by allowing freedom some innovations will come into being and, with an environment that allows parental choice, they will win market share. In the extraordinarily harsh environment facing charter school creation, and the limited freedom to innovate that charter schools are allowed (due to NCLB, as Miron notes), it is remarkable that some new and improved charter school chains have come into existence and grow.

The Progressive Policy Institute, hardly a right-wing source, found that in Arizona, the state with the longest and proportionately largest cohort of charter schools, by 2004

… charter school students showed an overall average annual achievement growth roughly three times higher than their traditional public school cohorts. Over four years of elementary school, this difference amounts to about one extra year of growth for charter school students.[6]

They point out that, contrary to expectations, charter schools are not “creaming” the best students; on average they enroll students with lower test scores than public schools.[7] And yet despite their recognition of the achievements of charter schools, they recommended tightening up charter school oversight in Arizona due to several scandals. The tightening up has taken place, with the result that significantly fewer charter schools have opened up in Arizona in the last few years.[8]

The salient metric for evaluating the minor experiments with educational freedom to date is neither whether they have transformed education for all nor whether they have made dazzling innovations. The salient metric is “Have our tiny experiments in freedom allowed a few new and better models to come into being?” They unambiguously have. From this we should rightly infer that we should increase educational freedom to allow more innovations and more growth for the innovations that do take place.

Today governments around the world control K-12 education. At some point, in some nation, that will change. The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.



[1] Cited in Dan Klein, “The People’s Romance: Why People Love Government (As Much as They Do),” The Independent Review, Volume 10, Number 1, September 2005,….

[2] Cited in Mark Skousen, “The Perseverance of Paul Samuelson’s Economics,”

[3] Cited in Paul Hollander, “Judgments and Misjudgments,” pg. 175 of Lee Edwards The Collapse of Communism, Hoover Institution Press, 1999. The author was Bertell Ollman, writing in PS: Political Science and Politics, September 1991, pg. 40. PS is APSA’s journal of record for the profession. Ollman was given a lifetime achievement award by the APSA in 2001.

[4] Gary Miron, “Strong Charter School Laws are Those That Result in Positive Outcomes,” The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University, presented at the 2005 Americal Educational Research Association (AERA) meeting,….

[5] See Michael Strong, “A Tale of Two Charter Schools,” for a more detailed account,

[6] Bryan C. Hassel and Michelle Godard Terrell, “The Rugged Frontier: A Decade of Public Charter Schools in Arizona,” Progessive Policy Institute, June 2004, pg. 15,

[7] Bryan C. Hassel and Michelle Godard Terrell, op. cit., pgs. 15-16.

[8]See Arwynn Mattix, “Losing Momentum,” Goldwater Institute Today’s News January 15, 2007,

Michael Strong is CEO of FLOW, a nonprofit dedicated to “Liberating the Entrepreneurial Spirit for Good.”

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Twenty-five years ago this month, a Reagan-appointed blue-ribbon committee published a blockbuster study, A Nation at Risk, about the sorry state of American education. In this month’s lead essay, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein gives his critical assessment. “In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good,” Rothstein writes. “The diagnosis … was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply, education entrepreneur Michael Strong challenges Rothstein’s key claims about the success of public schools and their relative unimportance for the further economic advance of the poor. He argues that the attachment to the status quo system of public education is “irrational.” Drawing on his experience as the principal of a successful charter school, Strong emphasizes the importance of the freedom to innovate. “The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.”

  • The Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern detects “two Richard Rothsteins.” The first praises the public schools for improving student performance and for narrowing inequalities in student achievement. The second argues that nothing further can be done by the schools; for added progress we need other forms of social and political reform. “Either schools are able to significantly overcome family and neighborhood deficits that children bring to the classroom (and therefore ought to be judged by that standard) or they cannot be expected to overcome the social and economic deficits,” Stern writes. “But [Rothstein] perversely insists on having it both ways.” In stark contrast, Stern argues that test scores have become worse, that schools bear the responsibility, but that they can improve through a regime of standards.

  • Frederick Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, concedes the premises of Richard Rothstein’s argument but contests their implications for the future of education. According to Hess, the key failing of A Nation at Risk was its too-easy acceptance of “the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.” As a consequence, the nature of teaching and teacher education has barely changed, despite deep changes in the broader labor market. And even the school choice movement has fallen victim to “the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements.” Hess concludes that “we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.”