Scholarship for Social Change
by Michael DeCourcy Hinds
The support of research and scholarship has been a fundamental theme of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s work over the years. Its Scholars Program helps men and women of vision examine some of the most significant and critical questions facing today
What's the best way to fight terrorism and maintain our freedom? Should the free market be restrained from auctioning off democracy's public goods, ranging from environmental rights to schoolchildren's curricula? Is there a school voucher program that might actually win over voucher opponents? Can we promote women's education in Muslim countries by celebrating Islam's own history of women's scholarship and social activism? These are the questions being examined by four Carnegie Scholars, who are profiled below. These scholarsLaura Donohue, Michael Sandel, Beverly Mack and Caroline Hoxby--are among 39 researchers who receive support in the Corporation's three-year-old fellowship program.
Throughout its history, the Corporation has supported research on issues central to its mission, mainly through universities and other non-profit institutions, but also through grants to individual scholars-until, that is, 1969 when some new government reporting regulations put a damper on making grants to individuals. Vartan Gregorian, who became the Corporation's president in 1997, believed the tradition was too important to let lapse. By institutionalizing it as an annual fellowship program in 1999, he solved the regulatory riddle and committed the foundation to the most ambitious scholarship program in its 91-year history. "We believe individual scholarship is an important asset in our democratic process where new policy solutions must be supported by credible research and analysis," says Gregorian.
Under the program's guidelines, the Corporation supports research that holds the promise of advancing knowledge, informing the public and shaping policy in areas of programmatic interest-education, international development, strengthening U.S. democracy, and international peace and security. The selection process is rigorous. Individuals are nominated by leaders representing a broad spectrum of American society-universities, liberal arts colleges, think-tanks, private voluntary organizations, media, government as well as unaffiliated leaders. After a scholar has been nominated, his or her proposal is reviewed by two committees and the president, who makes the final decisions. Up to 20 scholars can be named each year, with each receiving up to $100,000 to support research over a one- or two-year period. Patricia L. Rosenfield, chair of the program, says reviewers are looking for accomplished scholars, in all stages of their careers, who can clearly articulate original ideas that will likely have an important impact on public life. "The winning proposals convey quality, passion and creativity," she says. Carnegie Scholars, then, are not expected to inspire cartoons like one in The New Yorker by Everett Opie: In his drawing, two bearded scientists are hunched over separate counters filled with gadgetry. One says to the other, "I see by the current issue of Lab News, Ridgeway, that you've been working on the same problem I've been working on for the last 20 years."
Laura K. Donohue
Encounters with Northern Ireland’s barbed wire, soldiers with machine guns and militant teenagers stunned Laura Donohue. She was 20, an Irish-American student on a holiday planned with green hills and thatched cottages in mind. The 1989 trip rearranged her priorities, calling her to the work of helping states respond to terrorism. “I talked with people my own age who were engaged in violence because violence had been done to their own families and people they loved—and I realized they were acting out of a strong moral conviction,” recalls Donohue, now 32 and teaching a course called “Security, Civil Liberties and Terrorism” at Stanford University. “It could have been me there, faced with the same circumstances and having to make the same moral decisions. What’s the difference between them and me? What is it that drives some people to violence? How do states make things worse? Those are the questions I had then and they still animate my research.”
Donohue began her career at Dartmouth College, where she earned a BA with honors in philosophy as well as a citation for her work in war and peace studies, which she began after visiting Northern Ireland. After Dartmouth, Donohue returned to the province. At the University of Ulster, she earned a postgraduate diploma in a war and peace studies program—and her classmates included Loyalists, who favored ties to England, and Republicans, including former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who had just completed prison sentences for terrorism. “The irony was that we discussed general theories of peace studies, but never discussed politics in class—it was too controversial!” Donohue said. As a result, much of her education took place outside of the classroom. “I learned Irish history by going to the pub-actually, I was on a pub team that won a competition in Northern Ireland held at the University of Ulster, Magee. The four of us won 96 cans of Bass Ale.”
Donohue stayed at Ulster another year and earned an MA with distinction in 1993. “It was a reality-based education, and very sobering. I came to appreciate the complexities of the conflict and to become more concerned about state measures that exacerbated tension on both sides of the religious divide.”
Reflecting this concern about state reactions to terrorism, her subsequent research concentrated on counter-terrorism. Between 1994 and 1998, she was at the University of Cambridge earning a Ph.D. in history. Her doctoral dissertation examined the impact of “temporary” counter-terrorism laws that had been enacted over many decades in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 1999, while a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Donohue used her dissertation as the basis for a book, published by the Irish Academic Press and entitled Emergency Powers and Counter-terrorist Law in the United Kingdom 1922-2000.
In Donohue’s analysis, a small percentage of terrorist acts should be considered attacks against the state, while most others could be treated as crimes. The two approaches have enormous ramifications for democracies. If a terrorist act is deemed a crime, it is addressed with existing criminal laws designed to deter crime while protecting the rights of citizens and non-citizens. But if an act of terrorism is considered an attack on the state and its ability to protect the lives and property of its citizens, deterrence is no longer seen as an option—states must try to prevent further acts of terrorism. And prevention invariably affects civil liberties.
Donohue believes that states often over react because terrorism creates enormous public pressure on every branch of government to do something. “When an open society has been taken advantage of in this manner the immediate response is to close it,” she says. “To feel safe, people are willing to live with more restrictions and more government mistakes.” Northern Ireland’s counter-terrorism laws, which began accumulating as temporary measures in the 18th century, increased police powers for entry, search and seizure; expanded detention without charges or hearings; instituted censorship of newspapers, books, films and records; restricted meetings, assemblies and the singing of nationalist songs; closed Republican organizations, and banned the wearing of Easter lilies, an inflammatory symbol of an Irish uprising against the British during Easter Week, 1916.
Once on the books, such laws can be difficult to live with or to repeal, Donohue reports. Even when there is little evidence of terrorism—she found only four occasions of violence in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1972—the mere possibility of violence feeds a popular preference for safety over civil rights. This is especially true if the loss of civil rights falls heaviest on minority groups, such as Catholics in Northern Ireland. The civil rights campaign that exploded in the province in the late 1960s grew out of the uneven application of extraordinary state powers. The campaign led to the suspension of Northern Ireland’s parliament in 1972 and reimposition of British authority—and yet most of the counter-terrorism laws were reintroduced. Donohue says that political expedience often keeps counter-terrorism laws alive; for to repeal them requires the claim that some level of violence is acceptable or that terrorism is no longer a threat. The former is politically untenable, and the latter impossible to prove.
In general, Donohue theorizes that inappropriate state responses to terrorism run the risk of triggering a “counter-terrorist spiral,” which involves “inroads into civil liberties, the alienation of minority groups, the radicalization of extreme elements, the estrangement of foreign governments, the generation of an increase in terrorist threats and the increased effectiveness of terrorist acts.” But she has more questions than answers. When is a terrorist crime properly considered an act of war? At what point in a conflict do certain measures exacerbate the situation and at others mitigate the tension? What sorts of countermeasures are most effective for different types of threats? And what is the tradeoff, if any, between security and freedom for liberal, democratic states faced by terrorist challenge? “These questions are at the heart of what I’m working on,” Donohue says.
Surprisingly, not many other scholars are studying counter-terrorism; most research has focused on terrorist organizations and their activities. “Her work is defining a new field,” says Dorothy S. Zinberg, a founding member of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. During 2000 and early 2001, Donohue was at the Kennedy School as a teaching and postdoctoral fellow. There she conceived of an ambitious project: analyzing international responses to terrorism, developing a model of counter-terrorism’s impact and making recommendations for how democracies might balance security and freedom. To support her research, Carnegie Corporation named her a Carnegie Scholar in June 2001. Donohue’s project, scheduled for completion as a book manuscript in late 2003, will provide what she calls a taxonomy of counter-terrorism. It will provide a detailed history of terrorism in a half-dozen countries as well as their political, social, economic and military responses. She will assess which actions diminished terrorism, short-term and long-term, and which actions had no effect or made the situation worse.
While conducting the research, Donohue is based at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. As an acting assistant professor in the university’s political science department, she is incorporating the research into her course, “Security, Civil Liberties and Terrorism.” She says teaching helps her process and organize the research into lectures, which will become book chapters, and that the collegial atmosphere in the center and the department provide an “ideal” intellectual environment, one that is both supportive and challenging.
After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, Donohue began tracking the government’s response and believes the U.S. is overreacting domestically and abroad. “My concern is that we don’t need to go through all the learning pains that afflicted Europe in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. We know the predictable patterns that liberal, democratic states fall into when confronting terrorist challenges. Simply borrowing counter-terrorist measures from these states isn’t a good idea unless we understand what effect they had. If we’re going to take a page out of their history, we need to read the whole book.”
Michael J. Sandel
On a winter break from graduate school, Michael Sandel set off for the south of Spain with a book bag of philosophy and, in a way, never returned. “I became immersed in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I returned to Oxford and took seminars in political philosophy and haven’t really emerged since then,” recalls Sandel, now 49, a professor of government at Harvard University and a political theorist in his own right.
Sandel says he has been interested in politics since growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but became immersed in philosophy when a scholarship took him to Oxford. His planned two-year program at Oxford stretched into four years, with Sandel teaching politics during his last year and obtaining a doctorate in 1981.
Then that rarest of rarities occurred: his dissertation was published and became a classic in the field. In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, published by Cambridge University Press in 1982, Sandel explored the philosophic roots of liberalism and criticized its development into a doctrine that not only detached individual rights from considerations of the common good, but also separated political discussions from those on moral and religious issues that animate democratic life. In this form of liberalism, government is expected to provide a neutral framework of laws so that citizens can pursue the good life in any way that individuals define it. But Sandel argued that democratic politics cannot be neutral on moral questions; instead, it should nurture the civic virtues that inspire citizens to seek the common good.
The book helped shape the communitarian movement, which has, since the 1980s, sought to temper the American obsession with individual rights with a stronger sense of civic responsibility for the common good. (Sandel, for his part, resists the communitarian label, finding fault with some of its positions.) Reprinted many times, with a new edition in 1998, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice has now been translated into seven languages. The tension between individual and community is of worldwide interest, and every country comes from a different perspective; in Japan, for example, many readers are interested in introducing more individuality into a culture some consider to be too community-minded.
After Oxford, Sandel joined the Harvard faculty as an assistant professor, became an associate professor in 1983 and, in 1999, was named a Harvard College Professor in a special recognition of his teaching skills—best exemplified by his undergraduate course, “Justice,” which has to meet in the university’s Sanders Theater because it attracts 700 to 800 students each term. The course relates the classic works of Aristotle, Kant and John Stuart Mill to contemporary issues such as affirmative action, hate speech, gay marriage and income inequality. Modestly, Sandel attributes the course’s popularity to the students, who are provoked and inspired by class debates to sort out their own moral and political positions. Among his other professional activities, Sandel was recently appointed by President George W. Bush to the President’s Council on Bioethics, which is now focusing on the issue of cloning.
Sandel’s second book, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Belknap Press), appeared in 1996, and was featured as a cover story in The Atlantic Monthly. Another measure of its impact was the publication, a few years later, of Debating Democracy’s Discontent (Oxford University Press, 1999), a volume with more than a dozen scholarly responses. Sandel’s book struck a chord because it linked his first book’s philosophic inquiry to a new interpretation of the American political tradition. In digging into American political history, Sandel happily discovered that our “public philosophy,” or mainstream political tradition, did not always embrace a liberalism that is narrowly focused on the rights of the individual. Among speeches and writings of prominent thinkers from the time of the American Revolution to World War II, Sandel found evidence of a rival public philosophy—one that he called civic republicanism because of its greater emphasis on promoting civic virtues for the common good.
But after the World War II, Sandel says, the civic republican public philosophy was crowded out by rights-based liberalism and its two offshoots: an egalitarian liberalism—with mostly Democratic adherents who call themselves liberals—that advocates a nonjudgmental government but, inconsistently, makes exceptions by also championing selected values like tolerance and fairness; and libertarian liberalism—with mostly Republican adherents who call themselves conservatives—that advocates for a small government that lets individuals use the free market to define the good life for one and all. Sandel warned that both egalitarian and libertarian liberalism give inadequate weight to the obligations of citizenship and the claims of community. He called for an American revival of civic republicanism.
But how exactly does a country do that? Until recently, Sandel says, the call for civic virtue and morality in politics has been monopolized by cultural conservatives who blame big government and cultural institutions for being nonjudgmental to the point of moral relativism. Sandel says, “Egalitarian liberals [Democrats] made a great mistake by ceding moral and religious discourse to cultural conservatives and the Christian right. Rather than trying to banish moral and religious discourse from politics, liberals and progressives would do better to offer their own account of civic virtue.”
What’s missing is a critique of the market’s impact on civic virtue—and that is a central part of Sandel’s current book-writing project as a Carnegie Scholar. “One of the great obstacles to a politics of civic virtue, a politics that revives citizenship, is the power of unfettered markets,” he says. America’s market economy, he believes, is turning us into a market society, where priceless public spaces, institutions and countless other aspects of public life are being priced and auctioned off.
Sandel’s new book will argue that democracy is jeopardized by our marketing mania. “If markets are allowed to extend their reach without restraint we will be heading toward the kind of public life that could no longer support a genuine democracy. That’s because democracy needs certain public spaces and shared experiences that give citizens of all socioeconomic backgrounds a common ground for deliberating about public issues, purposes and ends.”
He plans to open the book with detailed examples of how we are devaluing public life as part of an unbridled commercialization and commodification of nearly everything. Examples include the patenting of human genes; the commercial branding of sports stadiums, theaters and public parks; the growth of for-profit prisons, schools and hospitals; the blurred boundaries between news and advertising in the media; the effect of money on elections; efforts to privatize public schools and Social Security; the phenomenal growth of private security forces and the increasing seclusion of affluent people in gated communities. Individually, these changes have often been accepted, even by many critics, as minor intrusions, infractions or tradeoffs. But when these transactions and others like them are considered collectively, as Sandel plans to do in his book, he says the alarming nature of the trend becomes more apparent.
In this kind of atmosphere, Sandel says, “the public sphere becomes the place for those who are left behind, for the poor who have no alternative.”
In addition to exploring how market forces undermine the public arena that nurtures citizenship, Sandel plans to propose some principles for guiding decisions about what should be marketed and what should not be. He will also make a pitch for greater public investment in what he calls the “public infrastructure of the common life,” including public schools, libraries, museums, health facilities, public transportation and parks. Not only are these improvements much needed public services, but also they would serve a vital civic purpose in strengthening our democracy—an argument, Sandel says, that helped bring about similar reforms in the Progressive era.
Sandel says, his political theory addresses two widespread American anxieties that politics now ignore: “First, a fear that, individually and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives; and second, a sense that, from family to neighborhood to nation, the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.”
Beverly B. Mack
Beverly Mack found the driving force for her scholarly mission while reading The Washington Post in 1984, just after returning from several years in Nigeria. The newspaper had published what she calls “the standard article about Muslim women—indicating that they are oppressed and can’t do anything—implying they have no brains, no ambition, no use.” A Post editor welcomed Mack’s offer of another perspective for its “Outlook” section, and she wrote a moving story about a deeply religious Muslim writer and teacher who sacrificed her work to follow her faith as an illiterate man’s third wife. To Mack’s horror, the piece appeared under the headline, “Being Third Wife Beats Having a Career in Moslem Nigeria.”
“I was dumbfounded!” recalls Mack, who is 50 and an associate professor of African and African-American Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She is not an apologist for any patriarchal society that discriminates against women and she is especially critical of Muslim regimes that devalue women. But as a scholar of African literature, language, religion and culture, she bridles at simplistic Western stereotypes that she says unintentionally demean Muslim women by writing them all off as subservient underachievers. “No one who has lived among these women could have anything but the greatest respect for them. It made me think the only way to change the Western stereotype was to share evidence of Muslim women’s scholarship through the centuries.”
She also believes that the celebration of Muslim women’s scholarship might be the best way to foster change from within Muslim societies—those that deny women equal access to education and, thus, independence. “Providing historical proof of Muslim women’s continuous involvement in scholarly networks and social development activities is, I think, a culturally appropriate way to support and promote women’s education, not to mention their political and social activism. The scholarly women in Muslim history serve as role models who embraced Islamic values. Reviving their writings and accomplishments should have more influence in Muslim cultures than would Western advocacy of women’s rights, alone.”
Mack grew up in Tolland, Connecticut, and after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1973, joined the Peace Corps, which sent her to teach in a small village in Sierra Leone. This experience led to her decision in graduate school to study Hausa, the lingua franca of West Africa, and do field work in Kano, Nigeria, the center of Hausa culture. At the University of Wisconsin, she earned an M.A. in African literature and, in 1981, a Ph.D. in the department of African Languages and Literature, with doctoral minors in African history and comparative literature. She is fluent in two African languages, Hausa and Krio, and is conversant in Arabic and French.
To do research for her doctoral dissertation—Wa’ko’kin Mata: Hausa Women’s Oral Poetry—Mack traveled on a Fulbright grant in 1979 to Kano to find, record and analyze Hausa women’s poetry. In pursuit of her goal, she spent a great deal of time at the emir’s palace, drawn by the emir’s female “praise singer,” who entertained the court and preceded him in public places with lavish praise. Mack learned that praise singing also includes oral poetry and was told about other women who also wrote and recited poetry. “What I found,” she said, “was poetry written in a religious tradition that served to inform people about their history, religion and current events. Some sang contemporary songs of wisdom and warning about childcare, hygiene, politics or drugs. They also sang extemporaneously—often weaving social criticism into their songs while playing a stringed instrument or a calabash drum.”
In 1982, Mack returned to Kano for post-doctorate research and teaching at Bayero University, where she lectured about African and African-American literature. One result of her work there was her edited and annotated volume of Hausa poetry, Al’kalamai a Hannun Mata (A Pen in the Hands of Women). Published in 1983 by the Northern Nigerian Publishing Company, the poems of Hauwa Gwaram and Hajiya ‘Yar Shehu appear in the original Hausa. “When I first visited the publishing company, the editors told me that Nigerian women didn’t write poetry,” Mack recalls. “But when I took out a stack of poems by Hauwa Gwaram and Hajiya ‘Yar Shehu, they had to admit that perhaps there was something to publish after all.” The book is still widely used in northern Nigeria as a text for adult literacy classes.
Now at the University of Kansas, Mack has been an associate professor of African and African-American studies since 1996 and an associate professor of religious studies since 1997. Her most popular, introductory course, “Women and Islam,” usually draws a large and diverse assortment of students, including some Muslim women in veils, as well as Middle-Eastern and African-American students.
Another course covers Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo, a prolific 19th century poet and teacher. Although she was still a legendary figure in 20th century Nigeria, her writing was not published and there were no books about her. When Mack first inquired about Asma’u during her 1979 trip to Nigeria, she was directed to Jean Boyd, an expatriate Englishwoman who taught school in Sokoto, Nigeria. Concerned that Nigerian schoolchildren in the 1960s were being taught European history for lack of African history books, Boyd began researching regional history. In the course of that work, she met Nana Asma’u’s great-great-great grandson, who loaned her a goatskin satchel filled with Asma’u’s manuscripts. Asma’u had written about history, battles she witnessed, political conflicts and Muslim values and principles. Boyd and Mack subsequently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work full-time for two years translating and annotating The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodiyo, 1793-1864, a 753-page volume published by Michigan State University Press in 1997; in 2000, it won the African Studies Association’s Text and Translation Book Award.
Mack and Boyd completed their study of Asma’u with a literary biography, One Woman’s Jihad, published by Indiana University Press in 2000. Mack and Boyd’s books are widely used by scholars and students in a variety of college courses including history, women’s studies, literature, anthropology and religion. In One Woman’s Jihad, one of Asma’u’s poems, written in 1856, describes some basic principles of Islam. In one section, she encourages women to pursue their education as they would food:
Women, a warning. Leave not your homes without good reason.
You may go out to get food or to seek education.
In Islam, it is a religious duty to seek knowledge.
Women may leave their homes freely
Why had Asma’u and other respected women scholars been overlooked and gone unpublished? Mack’s explanation is that Muslim women traditionally lived a very private life and were revered for their central role in the family. Given their more secluded life, their accomplishments rarely broke the surface of public life to receive the attention they deserved. Indeed, in the Islamic community, Asma’u’s manuscripts were kept in the family’s home and not in a state or university library. As a result, women’s writings and scholarship have largely escaped the attention of publishers and historians. This is changing with the growth of interest in social history and as more women become historians and enjoy the kind of access to the world of Muslim women that is denied to men.
In 2000, Mack was named a Carnegie Scholar and given support to undertake exploratory research. She hopes to discover pre-19th century works of Muslim women scholars, mostly in sub-Saharan and North Africa. The only evidence she has that such scholarship once existed is some 19th century correspondence and other materials that refer to a wealth of women’s scholarship going back several centuries. What survives is uncertain.
After taking a preliminary trip to Morocco this summer, Mack plans to make a half-dozen field trips over the next year to North Africa, where Islamic communities have existed since the 10th century or earlier. As in the past, she will generally avoid well-known archives and, instead, develop a network of sources that should lead her to privately held collections where women’s writing is much more likely to be found. She is optimistic about uncovering, and ultimately publishing, a wealth of theological writing, eulogies, literature, correspondence and historical, social and political commentaries. “But I don’t know what I’ll find or where I’ll find it until I get there,” Mack says. “It’s a mystery, but whatever happens, I’ve learned that ‘Allah will provide.’”
When Caroline Hoxby was 13 years old, she signed up for the toughest course her public school had to offer, an elective in what Thomas Carlyle dubbed the dismal science, economics. “I just loved it,” recalls Hoxby, now 35 and a professor of economics at Harvard University. “Growing up in the 1970s, I was deeply aware of economic problems and I was really excited to find out that there was a whole science seeking answers to these questions. I can remember reading Adam Smith and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! Someone has figured this out!’ I was just thrilled. It’s been a life-long love affair with the subject.”
Hoxby, who is also the director of the Economics of Education Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research as well as being a fellow of the Hoover Institution, the Sloan Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, was named a Carnegie Scholar in 2000 and given support to conduct research in promoting excellence in public education through an innovative system of student vouchers.
The project flows naturally from Hoxby’s longstanding interest in the economics of education, which was the subject of her doctoral dissertation as well as her theses for Oxford (where she earned an M. Phil. in economics), and Harvard, all of which won awards. As a pioneer in the economic issues of education, her research and testimony at state and federal hearings over the last decade have influenced policy and public debates on many school reform ideas, including the benefits of decreasing class size (it yields surprisingly small increases in student achievement, she found) and increasing students’ choice of schools (her research suggests that competition generates significant increases in student achievement). While she delves into these highly controversial school reform issues, she says she does so as a scientist with complete indifference to her findings or their political ramifications. “Frankly, I’m not very interested in politics.”
It was ten years ago, while doing research for her dissertation, that Hoxby began investigating the traditional form of school choice that Americans take for granted—parents’ freedom to choose schools for their children by choosing where they live or by choosing private schools. One implication of this freedom to keep in mind, says Hoxby, is that “middle-class parents won’t stay around to experience” unpopular school reforms. So while competition is inherent in our school system, it is an imperfect form of competition—urban school districts, having lost out to suburban districts, no longer face competition from any school because the remaining families are often too poor to move away or pay tuition at private school.
In 1980, the economists Milton and Rose Friedman first addressed this loss of urban competition by proposing a system that would give each student a voucher representing the annual public investment in his or her education. In their system, parents would then “spend” the voucher at any participating public or private school and, in the process, spur the development of a competitive and diverse educational marketplace that the Friedmans believed would engage parents and significantly improve education.
While the Friedmans’ voucher idea generated enormous interest and controversy,* the nation’s economists were too preoccupied with other issues to develop the Friedmans’ model, says Hoxby. In economists’ absence, a sociologist and two legal scholars developed the first voucher proposals; politicians launched experimental programs in a few urban districts; and, subsequently, political scientists, legal scholars and policy experts—not economists—evaluated the early voucher experiments. “It’s paradoxical that economists were out of the loop,” says Hoxby. “As a result, many commentators abandoned the idea of trying to find analytic answers to questions about choice—and many people decided that vouchers were essentially a matter of principle. Unfortunately, when people view something as a matter of principle, their positions tend to harden, undermining any likelihood of consensus or compromise.”
Among the most common criticisms about voucher programs and proposals are that the value of vouchers is typically set too low to cover education costs at most private schools; that voucher systems will sap money from public schools and create private schools that aren’t demonstrably better or accountable to public standards; that voucher programs will attract the most able students and leave behind public schools filled with physically disabled, learning disabled and low-IQ students; that vouchers will destroy the idea of the common school by increasing segregation along racial, ethnic, religious and linguistic lines; and that city voucher programs do not provide any real choice among public schools because suburban school districts do not participate. Voucher opponents stress these risks while proponents minimize them—often adding that some tradeoffs must be accepted to gain the benefits that competition can bring.
Unfortunately, says Hoxby, this debate swirls around flawed voucher experiments and proposals, and not the well-designed voucher systems that she believes are possible. “The reality,” she says, “is that these plans started as a grammmmmsroots thing, not with school finance experts and economists and institutional experts trying to design and test an exemplary voucher system.”
And that is exactly what Hoxby is working on now as a Carnegie Scholar. Her work builds on the Friedmans’ model and would create competition not only among urban, but also suburban schools, charter schools, as well as private and religious schools. Competition is, in her view, the best path to school reform. Her prior research indicates that competition spurs educational improvements, including improved student achievement and greater appreciation for good teaching.
Under Hoxby’s ideal voucher system, families could send their children to the schools of their choice—and they would have a meaningful choice of public and private schools in a multi-district region, metropolitan area or state. To promote such widespread participation of schools, this system would provide schools with adequate resources—vouchers would cover the specific costs of each student’s individual educational needs. Hypothetically, then, Bob’s voucher would have extra money for a special educa-tion program; Jane’s voucher would cover costs associated with a hearing disability; Jim, a typical student with no special needs, would have a voucher covering average per-pupil costs for a regular education student; and Susan, who comes from a poor family, would have a voucher that reflected the extra cost of enriching her education. Vouchers could reflect virtually any education-related expense, ranging from transportation to the cost of teaching students who haven’t yet learned English.
The system Hoxby proposes is vastly different from the controversial programs and proposals that offer a limited number of students a limited number of school choices with a one-size-fits-all voucher—priced as though every child had identical educational needs that could be met with a few thousand dollars. And unlike some voucher systems in place now, Hoxby’s would leave it up to parents to decide, by their choice of programs and teachers, which schools grew and which ones closed. “It’s important to allow unpopular schools to close, rather than continue our current practice of rewarding failing schools with more money.”
A key feature of Hoxby’s voucher system is that it is designed to be impossible for any group of students (disabled, poor, minority) to be segregated involuntarily. That is, such a group would have to want to self-segregate in order for segregation to occur. If, after introducing this system, policymakers still perceived that some socially desirable goal was not being met, the vouchers could be adjusted. For example, students could be given incentives to segregate themselves less than they are inclined to if left to their own devices: students would get larger vouchers if they attended schools with greater racial diversity. But Hoxby isn’t sure such social engineering would be needed if groups cannot be segregated against their will.
Hoxby’s system would also revolutionize school finance. Under the current system, school districts divvy up federal, state and local funds among schools according to rough estimates of the student body and its educational needs. Under Hoxby’s plan, the same public funds would be apportioned to students, based on their individual educational needs. School districts that have similar per-pupil spending could easily participate in such a regional voucher system, including many cities that have high educational expenditures. For the voucher plan to work in areas with large discrepancies in per-pupil spending, tax reforms of some kind would be needed.
Hoxby has almost completed a computer model for the voucher plan. The hard part, she says, is going to be obtaining the data she needs from a metropolitan area to create a real-world simulator of the voucher program. When that is in place in early 2003, educators and policymakers could see exactly how the system would create individual vouchers and promote school competition across their school districts.
And contrary to George Bernard Shaw’s pronouncement that “if all economists were laid end to end they would not reach a conclusion,” Hoxby believes that a consensus among economists is developing about this approach to school choice. “For economists, the controversy is essentially disappearing, in that there is growing agreement that a voucher plan can be designed to do whatever you want it to do.”
Michael deCourcy Hinds is the Corporation’s chief writer. Previously, he was a national correspondent for The New York Times and he also wrote citizens’ guides to social issues at Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization.