Robert Reich, former secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1997 and a university professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., has long enjoyed a reputation as a liberal Democrat.
That's why Professor Reich surprised many of the readers who picked up The Wall Street Journal this past September and saw a piece by Reich on the paper's Op-Ed page making a case for school vouchers.
While support for vouchers has been mixed, and has crossed party lines at times, the issue is generally regarded as a conservative cause. Much of the support for vouchers draws its strength from a belief in competition - or "market forces" - as a positive force for change. And that is not, as Reich made clear in a recent interview with the Monitor, a point of view he necessarily sustains.
"I'm not a voucher supporter at all," he insists. What he is, instead, he says, is "someone who has spent most of [his] life looking at the labor force, and becoming increasingly concerned with the education of the lower 40 percent [of the US population]. We are segregated more and more by income and by where we live."
What Reich favors is experimentation with "progressive" vouchers ranging from $2,000 to $12,000 in value, depending on family income.
In a sense, he argues, the country already has a voucher system. When parents buy a house in an affluent town with an excellent school system, they have purchased a "voucher" allowing their children to attend those schools. Poor families don't qualify for those "vouchers," and that's why Reich favors a system that would level that playing field.
But he says the real reason he chose to jump into the voucher debate was to break what he perceives as a deadlock between those who favor vouchers - and regard school choice as the ingredient most necessary to improve public schools - and those who oppose vouchers, favoring instead greater investment in public schools.
"When an issue has been polarized, it makes it very difficult for any movement to occur," he says. "I don't think a simple voucher/no-voucher debate is going anywhere." If necessary, he adds, "don't call it voucher. Call it liverwurst or anything else."
The country must think more creatively, he insists, and the opposing sides of the voucher question must realize that the only answer can lie in some intelligent combination of more choice for parents and more resources invested in schools.
Reich weighed in further in his discussion with the Monitor:
On reaction to his proposal:
I got a lot of positive reaction, including from Democrats and liberals. There was relief expressed over the possibility of reshaping the dialogue on vouchers. It's difficult to make progress. People have very fixed notions. I hope to shake people enough to get them moving forward.
On the idea that competition or market forces can improve public education:
I'm an agnostic about all that. It's possible. But competition is not the universal solvent. Competition can be helpful, but if you don't have the resources, you end up with children in places that are tantamount to custodial facilities. That's what drove me back to my notion [of progressive vouchers]. You change the organization of school funding. The fact that schools compete is not the generator of excellence.
On the possibility of widespread experimentation with vouchers in the US:
On the state level, that would depend on the boldness of the governor and the legislature. It would be hard to start in a state with extreme differences of poverty and wealth. Suppose you were to start in a northern Midwestern state with progressive traditions, like Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Indiana.
On the need to reshape education to meet labor-force needs:
The demand for people who are well educated and have a certain set of analytic and communication skills continues to increase relative to supply. The demand for those without those skills continues to fall relative to supply. Routine service jobs have been automated or gone abroad.
The emphasis today is on finding people who will improve what they do. You have to give poor kids better tools, a better environment, and a fair shot at the jobs of the New Economy.
On the use of standardized testing:
I worry a great deal about overreliance on tests. Given that our New Economy relies so much on new skills, I don't like the idea of using such an old-fashioned measure.
On what students should be learning:
We need to teach people beyond the basics. They need to learn how to experiment; how to see the world in systems of cause and effect; how to abstract from a variety of data and see patterns; how to collaborate with one another in teams; to develop tolerance and a sense of justice.
These are the qualities of education, the things that are important for the New Economy.
On whether vouchers are the antidote for problems in public education:
I'm far from sure that this is the answer. I don't think that there is any one answer. But we have to get out of the box we're in and try some experiments.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society