"An Education on Reform": Update

January 31, 2005
Elusive Equity

With the publication of When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale in 2000, co-authors Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske brought to the debate over school choice in America a perspective infused with prescient observation.

Ladd, Edgar Thompson Professor of public policy studies, and her husband, Fiske, an education consultant and former education editor of The New York Times, spent five months in New Zealand, a model, they argued, for a typical American state and the site of a decade-long experiment: In 1989, the government turned over control of the country's 2,700 primary and secondary schools to local boards chaired by parents. The resulting problems, the authors wrote--stratification of enrolling patterns along socio-economic lines and the worsening conditions of schools that were already low-performing--were the failings of a "simple governance solution." Just two years later, "No Child Left Behind," the simple, though sweeping response by the federal government to calls for education reform in the United States, would lend credence to their claim.

Duke Magazine cover

Such shrewd analysis is at the heart of a new book by the couple chronicling yet another struggle for scholastic parity. Elusive Equity: Education Reform in Post-Apartheid South Africa, published last August by the Brookings Institution, examines "the massive challenge ... of transforming a system designed to further the racist goals of apartheid." Though the authors praise South Africa for its progress since the transfer of political power to a black minority in 1994, they note that this was only a "first step toward the construction of a sustainable social order." Fiske and Ladd maintain that, despite the elimination of racial barriers to education access, equity has remained elusive because, in short, "history matters." They cite South Africa's long history of racial separation and the legacy of an uneven playing field in arguing that a "race-blind" approach to reform is not enough. Good policy is one thing, they write. Implementation is quite another. South Africans would do well to look to America for that cautionary tale.