For more than a decade, school choice has been a flashpoint in debates about our nation's schooling. Perhaps the most commonly advanced argument for school choice is the notion that markets will force public schools to improve, particularly in those urban areas where improvement has proved so elusive. However, the question of how public schools respond to market conditions has received surprisingly little attention. Revolution at the Margins examines the impact of school vouchers and charter schooling on three urban school districts, explores the causes of the behavior observed, and explains how the structure of competition is likely to shape the way it affects the future of public education. The book draws on research conducted in three school districts at the center of the school choice debate during the 1990s: Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; and Edgewood, Texas. Case studies examine each of these three districts from the inception of their local school choice program through the conclusion of the 1999 school year. The three school districts studied did not respond to competition by emphasizing productivity or efficiency. Instead, under pressure to provide some evidence of response, administrators tended to expand public relations efforts and to chip holes in the rules, regulations, and procedures that regulate public sector organizations. Inefficient practices were not rooted out, but some rules and procedures that protect employees and vocal constituencies were relaxed. Public school systems are driven by political logic, according to Hess, and their incentives lead them to respond generally through symbolic and metaphorical gestures. Choice-induced changes in public school systems will be shaped by public governance, the market context in which they operate, and their organizational characteristics. Revolution at the Margins encourages scholars and policymakers to think more carefully about the costs and benefits of educational competition, to understand how competitive effects will be heavily shaped by the outcomes of more conventional efforts to reform schooling, and to reevaluate some of the facile promises of market-based education reform.
Frederick M. Hess is the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He is the coauthor (with Michael J. Petrilli) of No Child Left Behind Primer (Peter Lang, 2006) and editor of Educational Entrepreneurship (Harvard Education Press, 2006).