Bennett & Beach v. Kahlenberg



Authors from Part 1 of our policies series respond. (Previously: William J. Bennett and Christopher Beach, "Opportunity Should Take Priority in Education;" Richard D. Kahlenberg, "Stronger Together in Education.")


Response to Richard D. Kahlenberg

By William J. Bennett and Christopher Beach 

Mr. Kahlenberg references Albert Shanker early on in his essay. I (Bennett) knew Shanker, and he once told me a great story that gets to the heart of Mr. Kahlenberg's essay.

Shanker told me about a school he visited several decades ago, at a time when many schools were still using “tracking,” the system that separates students based on their academic ability. Typically, it sorted them into slow, normal, or fast tracks. Shanker met with some students in the slow track at this particular school and asked them what they wanted to study and what they were interested in. He wanted to study the differences between the slow-track and fast-track students. Their response surprised him: They wanted to read exactly what the fast track kids were reading. They knew they were not at the same reading level, but their aspirations were just as high. Shanker used the story to illustrate the universal appeal of demanding content and the importance of high expectations. He believed in strong curricula, and he knew that excellent education leads to outcome equality (“socioeconomically integrated environments,” as Mr. Kahlenberg says) — not the other way around.

To get outcome equality, we must provide equal opportunity at the start (i.e., school choice) and follow through with accountability, demanding content, and rigorous standards. In other words, equal opportunity and first-rate education should be our priorities; outcome equality will come as a result. Without school choice, low-income students will be trapped in failing neighborhood public schools, surrounded by students just like them.

Look at our higher education system. Students from almost every country, background, class, and ethnicity are able to attend the same schools because it operates on a choice model and financial aid dollars follow students to the schools of their choosing. That’s the proper model for ensuring greater opportunity and better outcomes in education.

As for Mr. Kahlenberg's point about civics: Yes, we absolutely need better civics education and more of it. U.S. history is our high school students’ worst subject. If we had better civics education, people would understand the rise of Donald Trump and not fear it, as Mr. Kahlenberg seems to suggest we should. Conversely, they would understand President Obama’s abuse of executive authority and failure to enforce our immigration laws, and they would understand the importance of the Supreme Court — and why elections have consequences.

(For the opposing view, see Richard D. Kahlenberg, "Stronger Together in Education.")


Response to William J. Bennett and Christopher Beach

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

William Bennett and Christopher Beach advocate traditional conservative education ideas — budget cuts and private school vouchers (under the guise of states’ rights) — which I oppose. But their essay also includes possibilities for common ground to improve the lives of disadvantaged students.

Like Donald Trump, Bennett and Beach would allow states and districts to divert federal Title I public school funds to private schools. That approach would starve public schools of needed investment and further separate students by religion, race, and class.

The budget cuts they advocate would also set us back, because research confirms that money matters in education. Scholarship by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson, and Claudia Persico in Education Next finds that “for low-income children, a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school is associated with roughly 0.5 additional years of completed education, 9.6 percent higher wages, and a 6.1-percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.”

Having said that, we know going back to the 1966 Coleman Report that the people in schools matter even more than the per capita expenditure. A low-income child who has the chance to attend a middle-class school is more likely to be surrounded by classmates who expect to go on to college, a parental community that can afford to be actively involved in school affairs, and strong teachers with high expectations, than if she attends a high-poverty school.

A 2010 Century Foundation report by Heather Schwartz of the RAND Corporation found that extra investment in high-poverty schools in Montgomery County, Maryland had positive effects on student achievement but that it was far more beneficial to allow low-income families to live in middle-class neighborhoods and attend middle-class schools.

Here’s where Bennett’s and Beach’s idea of making federal Title I money follow low-income students is intriguing. If the program centered on public rather than private schools, and if the funding level were generous enough, middle-class public schools would want to recruit low-income students. That approach would strengthen both social mobility and social cohesion at a time when we desperately need both. 

(For the opposing view, see William J. Bennett and Christopher Beach, "Opportunity Should Take Priority in Education.")


William J. Bennett is a former U.S. secretary of education and Chairman of Conservative Leaders for Education. Christopher Beach is Producer of the Bill Bennett Interview and Chief of Staff to William Bennett.


Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007). (The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not necessarily represent those of The Century Foundation.)

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