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Making Up Our Mind

What School Choice Is Really About

If free market advocates had total control over education policy, would the shared public system of education collapse? Would school choice revitalize schooling with its innovative force? With proliferating charters and voucher schemes, would the United States finally make a dramatic break with its past and expand parental choice?

Those are not only the wrong questions—they’re the wrong premises, argue philosopher Sigal R. Ben-Porath and historian Michael C. Johanek in Making Up Our Mind. Market-driven school choices aren’t new. They predate the republic, and for generations parents have chosen to educate their children through an evolving mix of publicly supported, private, charitable, and entrepreneurial enterprises. The question is not whether to have school choice. It is how we will regulate who has which choices in our mixed market for schooling—and what we, as a nation, hope to accomplish with that mix of choices. Looking beyond the simplistic divide between those who oppose government intervention and those who support public education, the authors make the case for a structured landscape of choice in schooling, one that protects the interests of children and of society, while also identifying key shared values on which a broadly acceptable policy could rest.


"The authors of this book introduce something wholly novel into the highly polarized debates about school choice: nonpartisan nuance. They examine both the long history of school choice in the US, which has been there from day one, and the complex philosophical tradeoffs that are required to negotiate what constitutes good educational policy. In the process, they show that since schooling is a unique kind of good--at the same time public, private, and positional--policies that regulate choice need to balance a complex array of potential costs and benefits."

David F. Labaree, author of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of Higher Education

"Ben-Porath and Johanek provide the most complete and revealing accounting yet of the school choice question in American education. Combining history with thoughtful philosophical analysis, it lays to rest the posturing and sloganeering that have characterized the issue for decades. It is a must read for anyone considering this significant policy matter today, and larger questions of achievement, equity, and democracy facing the education systems of tomorrow."

John L. Rury, University of Kansas

"This concise and compelling book helps us look anew at our current debates about school choice. It shows that the real debate is not whether we have ‘choice’--both parental choice and market-driven choice have long been part of American education--but how policies dictate who gets to choose, how, and with what consequences. Debates about school choice are debates about control, accountability, and the very goals and nature of education as an individual and collective good. A wide range of audiences, from experts to those seeking an introduction on the topic, will find this book useful and insightful."

Tracy Steffes, Brown University

"This highly readable and instructive volume coolly clarifies otherwise heated arguments about the public and private good in American education."

Kate Rousmaniere, Miami University, Ohio

Ben-Porath (Univ. of Pennsylvania) and Johanek (Univ. of Pennsylvania) offer a straightforward discourse about the history of school choice in the US, the nature of choice in our contemporary education landscape, and the societal challenges around this topic as it relates to equity, access, and equal opportunity for all in education...This is important reading for educators and politicians interested in the school choice movement's consequences for the national political and historical landscape.

A. Muhammad, Appalachian State University | Choice

"Making Up Our Mind is a fantastic example of why historically informed and philosophically sophisticated work is vital to resolving some of our stickiest education debates. In paying careful attention to the history of school choice in the US, the book, first, helps us zoom in on those central dilemmas necessarily embedded in designing a school system. As the authors argue, attending to the history of schooling in the US allows us to “decipher the constant versus distinctive elements of our current debate” (p. 10). Second, by paying careful attention to the thorny ethical issues these dilemmas raise, the book helps ensure we make education decisions in ways that realize those values we most care about as citizens. Especially in light of its interdisciplinary approach, Making Up Our Mind presents a compelling argument for how we should think about school choice today."

Harvard Education Review

Table of Contents


School Choice Today
Not Your Parents’ Schooling
Design Trade-Offs
What Follows

Part 1. Historical Reflections on School Choice
Original Choices
An Educational Ecology Emerges
Between Rome and Albany
Rebels with Causes
Choosing Neighbors and Schools
Brown: Crawling Past Plessy
The Bus Stops Here
Experimental Visions
Toward Plural Public Education
From Plural Visions to Bounded Choices
Federal Support Shifts from Magnets to Charters

Part 2. The Value of Choice: A Normative Assessment
Whose Education Is It?
Private Options for Education Consumers
Schools for the Public, by the Public
Can Parents Be Effective Education Consumers?

Labs for Innovation, or Unaccountable “Ghost Districts”?
Choice through Privatization Supports Innovation
The Limits of Innovation
Limits of Accountability through Private Choice
Accountability through Transparency
Accountability through Participation
Accountability through Sanctioning
Accountability through Resistance

Equal Access to Quality Education, or Another Layer of Separation?
Choice Provides Equal Access to Quality Education
Choice Creates Another Layer of Inequality and Separation
Higher-Quality Education?
Equal Access to Quality Education?
New Layers of Separation

Conclusion: Making Up Our Collective Mind

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