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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.

Author Information

Sigal R. Ben-Porath is professor of education, philosophy, and political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book is Free Speech on Campus. Michael C. Johanek is senior fellow at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as profesor invitado internacional at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. His most recent book is Repositioning Educational Leadership, a coedited volume.


"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

"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

"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 highly readable and instructive volume coolly clarifies otherwise heated arguments about the public and private good in American education."
— Kate Rousmaniere, Miami University, Ohio

Audience: Professional and scholarly;