Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein is a Research Associate of the Economic Policy Institute, a Senior Fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law, a Contributing Editor of The American Prospect, and an occasional contributor. His previous work on racial segregation and public education is posted here, and his most recent Prospect print story, "The Making of Ferguson," can be read here. Readers may correspond with him about his writing at

Recent Articles

The Myth of Public School Failure

Public schools are actually performing remarkably well. What they need is not radical reform but more support.

T here's a conventional wisdom about public schools: Graduates don't have the skills needed for a technologically advanced economy. We've doubled funds for public education since the mid-1960s, but more money hasn't improved schools. Academic achievement is stagnant or declining. Public schools can't impprove because teachers are smothered by bureaucracy. To address this system failure, structural reforms such as school-based desision making or parental choice of schools are imperative. Liberals and conservatives share much of this view, parting only when the left proposes radical decentralization of public schools while the right calls for privatization with vouchers. Yet despite the broad consensus, each assertion in the conventional story is incorrect or misguided. The truth is: Public schools now produce most academic skills currently demanded by employers and, most likely, even the skills needed if industry adopted more flexible production methods. While public education funding...

Controversy: Charters and Choice

Joe Nathan Rosa Parks—yes, that Rosa Parks—recently applied to open a charter school in Detroit. That's one of many things omitted in Richard Rothstein's critique of the charter public school movement ["Charter Conundrum," TAP , July-August 1998]. As a researcher, a former teacher in inner-city public schools, and a former PTA president whose three children attend integrated city public schools, I see great value in the charter school idea. Some say schools can't be expected to significantly improve the achievement of low-income students other than by rectifying the underlying problems—such as drugs, single-parent families, poor nutrition, and a host of others—that come with a low-income existence. But liberal charter proponents, such as Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, don't believe that acknowledging the existence of these problems (and trying to fix them) means justifying the acceptance of poor achievement by low-income students. We need to talk about the reality of public schools...

Conceding Success

Several recent studies show that two major undertakings of progressive government -- environmental regulation and public education -- have been far more successful than widely believed.

Works Discussed in this Essay: David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud and the Attack on America's Public Schools (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995). Gerald W. Bracey, "The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education," published each October since 1991 in Phi Delta Kappan. Gerald W. Bracey, Final Exam: A Study of the Perpetual Scrutiny of American Public Schools (TECHNOS Press, 1995). Gregg Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (Viking, 1995). Samuel G. Freedman, Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students and Their High School (Harper and Row, 1990). David W. Grissmer, Sheila Nataraj Kirby, Mark Berends, and Stephanie Williamson, Student Achievement and the Changing American Family (RAND, 1994). Leonie Haimson, and Billy Goodman, eds., A Moment of Truth: Correcting Scientific Errors in Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment on the Earth (Environmental Defense Fund, 1995). Christopher Jencks...

Behind the Numbers: When States Spend More

Surprisingly, even without federal mandates, the states have both increased and equalized school outlays. There is a political lesson here -- about coalition building and grassroots activism.

L iberals and progressives have generally believed that shifting federal authority for social programs to the states will typically lead to a "race to the bottom" as states try to attract business and keep taxes down by cutting expenditures and regulations [see Mary Graham, "Why States Can Do More"]. But a common trend of the last quarter century has also been a race to the top in which state policies can become more generous over time and even rival those of the federal government. Education is the social enterprise for which state and local governments have always had almost exclusive responsibility. Public education has never won much federal support (only 6 percent of spending comes from the federal government, and at the height of federal involvement in 1979, it was still less than 10 percent), so if there was an inevitable trend in our federal system for competitive inadequacy, we might expect to see it in the public schools. And we did see it in the South, until about 1970 when...

Charter Conundrum

In exchange for autonomy from school districts, charter schools promise to achieve measurable progress in children's performance. But the movement is based on a dubious premise.

C harter schools probably will not settle the education wars, but they may provide an armistice. Conservative privatizers see charter schools as a next-best alternative to voucher plans, which have now lost political momentum; progressive educators, on the other hand, see charters as places where they can implement long-sought reforms, free from constraints imposed by rule-bound school bureaucracies. Each side hopes to exploit charter schools' disarmingly simple trade—that almost any group can get public funds to run almost any kind of school, provided they are "explicitly accountable" to the public for "improving student performance," in the U.S. Department of Education's words. But there's the rub. The premise on which charter schools are based—that we can hold schools accountable for results—is a myth. As contemporary debates about national standards and testing show, there is no consensus about how to assess educational outcomes objectively. Nor does political accountability seem...