July 28, 2003
By Michael Potemra
THREE years ago, Encounter Books set out on a crucial mission: Publisher Peter Collier wanted to “enlarge the space for ideas in our culture” by publishing serious conservative nonfiction. And Encounter has more than fulfilled its early promise-it is, today, one of the most reliable sources of excellent works on politics and culture. Every conservative reader will have his own favorites. Among mine are The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens’s devastating account of social and cultural collapse in the U.K.; The War over Iraq, a compelling and timely indictment of Saddam Hussein’s regime by Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol; and Heaven on Earth, Joshua Muravchik’s magisterial history of the failure of socialism.
That Encounter is thriving is great news, because it is a countercultural enterprise of an especially helpful kind. Today’s cultural orthodoxies are not the same ones Peter Collier rebelled against back when he was a Sixties radical, but they are just as deeply entrenched. One of the most harmful is the idée fixe-by now, more accurately, a folie à millions-that the way to improve our children’s education is to spend more money on the demands of the teachers unions. One of the best new books Encounter is publishing this year will help convince America to renounce this illusion. In Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice (248 pp., $25.95), Sol Stern describes his experiences as a parent of children in the New York City public schools, and outlines what the money-obsessed unions have done to education.
Between 1965 and 1990, average per-pupil spending in the United States increased from $2,402 to $5,582 in inflation-adjusted dollars. . . . Why did American public education go into the tank just as all that extra money was pouring in? To put it simply: Adding powerful unions with exclusive collective bargaining rights to the existing monopolistic education system has been a lethal mix. In the private sector, unions know that if they insist on protecting incompetent workers and cling to outdated work rules, the company they are bargaining with is likely to end up losing market share. Union members will then lose jobs.
In public education, of course, this doesn’t happen. Stern’s case is airtight, but it’s the anecdotes that make his book such a delight to read. Once you meet the characters in his pages-the teacher who sleeps in class, the custodian who refuses to clean, and the numerous unspeakable bureaucrats-you will be convinced of the need for reform, but you’ll also probably have a smile on your face. What comes through most clearly is Stern’s old-fashioned American idealism. He, too, was a Sixties radical, and sees the continuity between his enthusiasms past and present. In his discussion of school choice, for example, he calls for “one, two, three, many Milwaukees”:
If the reader recognizes this locution from the 1960s (when Che Guevara called for “two, three, many Vietnams”), it wasn’t included here by accident. Increasingly I have been struck by the similarities between the contemporary school-choice movement and the protest movements I was part of many years ago. . . . It’s the teachers’ unions that have become the ruling class in education. . . . Today’s school-choice activists are challenging the co ercive and bureaucratic culture of public education, just as we in the student protest movements of the Sixties took on what we regarded as the authoritarian, top-down, factory-model universities.
Stern is standing up to The Man, and good for him. Everybody who cares about public education should read Breaking Free; others should read it simply because it’s a great book. It’s part of the solution-exactly the kind of book Encounter specializes in.
©2003 National Review