By Joe Bast | February 6, 2023
Herbert J. Walberg, one of the world’s most distinguished scholars of school productivity and reform and a leading advocate of parental choice in education, passed away on February 6, 2023. He was chairman emeritus of The Heartland Institute. Some obituaries can be found here:
Dr. Walberg was a long-time chairman of the board at The Heartland Institute, a senior fellow for education policy, and author, editor, or contributor to many of its publications. He joined the board of directors in 1993 and served as its chairman until 2018.
Herb, as he preferred to be called, was a major figure in education reform debates in the United States and worldwide. He wrote or edited more than 75 books and published more than 425 articles in prominent scholarly publications such as Daedalus, Educational Leadership, Kappan, and Nature as well as popular publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.
Herb was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Statistical Society (London), the American Psychological Association, and the Australian Association for Educational Research. He was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2004 to a three-year term on the National Board for Education Sciences. Additionally, he served as vice president of the International Academy of Education.
“Truly an international scholar, he gave invited lectures in Australia, Belgium, China, England, France, Germany, Italy, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Venezuela and the U.S., as well as many other national and international venues,” said Jennifer Walberg, his daughter-in-law.
I was privileged to know Herb for some 30 years, to work with him while I was president of The Heartland Institute, and to coauthor or edit several books with him. He was an excellent board chair, always on call for advice and quick decisions and with a natural talent for running meetings. He was an excellent researcher and writer, with an encyclopedic knowledge of education policy and keen dedication to concision and accuracy. He was generous with his time and praise for others, and financially too.
The first book we wrote together was a small one, We Can Rescue Our Children (1988), documenting the failure of the Chicago Public Schools, called “the worst in the nation” at the time by Secretary of Education William Bennett, and proposing a parental choice plan that would provide property tax rebates to parents who chose private schools for their children. The book was widely distributed in Chicago, with some parents even setting up card tables in front of churches and giving away copies on Sunday mornings. The book launched the school choice movement in Chicago.
Our next book was Education and Capitalism (2003), a hefty volume published by the Hoover Institution aiming to convince parents and policymakers that the provision of K-12 education should be returned to the private sector through school vouchers. The book introduced readers to the “failure of the public school monopoly,” “what is capitalism,” “what is economics,” “design guidelines for school vouchers,” “why conservatives and libertarians should support vouchers,” and more.
Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute and author of many books on school reform, said “perhaps no other book combines such a clear presentation of the opposition to vouchers with the intellectual tools required to demolish it.”
Education and Capitalism was followed by a shorter book titled Let’s Put Parents Back in Charge! (2004, 2005), which became the most widely distributed book about school choice in the world. More than 100,000 copies of the first edition were distributed followed by some 30,000 copies of a bilingual (English and Spanish) edition.
Then came the first of four editions of The Patriot’s Toolbox (2010 – 2017), “a guide to public policy for patriot-activists in the Tea Party movement as well as for candidates for public office, incumbent office holders, civic and business leaders, and journalists assigned to cover the movement.” The first edition offered ten principles for guiding policy on each of eight topics (health care, energy and environment, school reform, privatization, business climate, telecommunications, state fiscal policy, and property and casualty insurance). Later editions deleted some topics and added new ones, resulting in ten topics and 100 principles in the last edition.
Stephen Presser, a distinguished professor of law at Northwestern University, said of The Patriot’s Toolbox: “This is more than just a patriot’s toolbox, it is, in fact, an owners’ manual for the sovereigns of the United States, its people. … If studied and implemented by policy makers, government officials, and concerned citizens, this brilliant and learned volume could do more than any other to bring about a return to our core conceptions of the rule of law and rule by and for the people.”
I helped Herb write several smaller books for other organizations, including School Choice: The Findings (Cato Institute, 2007), Advancing Student Learning (Education Next Books, 2010), and Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform (Education Next Books, 2011).
Our final book together was Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn—and why teachers don’t use them well (2014), a defense of using rewards and incentives to promote academic achievement in K-12 education. Herb’s mastery of psychology and my familiarity with economics combined to take down the flawed arguments against allowing competition and choice in education.
Charles Glenn, an education professor at Boston University, said our “solidly documented book challenges the naïve belief that intrinsic interest is enough, and the parallel assumption that teachers are so high-minded that there is no need to reward them for efforts going beyond the mediocre routine. Their account of how a variety of rewards function in families as well as in schools is bracingly realistic and packed with practical strategies.”
Herb’s tenure as chairman of The Heartland Institute’s board of directors, spanning some 23 years, saw the organization grow from a small think tank focused on the Midwest to a national think tank that is ranked as one of the 50 most influential think tanks in the United States. He played no small role in that success. He was a philanthropist as well as a leader and scholar, generously supporting Heartland financially as well as by donating his time.
He leaves behind countless friends and colleagues who knew and loved him, and a world made better by his good works.