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Monday, July 9, 2018

We Need School Choice for Education without Dogma

School choice is not religious in principle. It is anti-dogma in principle, valuing the fit between school and student, asserting the validity of many paths.

Do you want more choice in where you get your baby potatoes or your baby’s education?

I have a brilliant idea! We should create a system of government-run grocery stores. The government will run them according to majority-approved philosophies of food. Everyone will have to accept what is ruled best practice in food, because that’s how democracy works. We’ll subsidize these government-run grocery stores in order to provide free public nutrition.

Private grocery stores mostly won’t be able to compete with subsidized ones, but there are always niches. Health-food co-ops and splashy gourmet destinations could cater to hippy weirdos or the wealthy.

However, no government “vouchers” should be usable at private grocery stores. That would steal dollars from public nutrition.

Oh wait, my brilliant idea is really dumb.

Yet, the description does apply to a real case of how our society meets a fundamental need. Substitute “schools” and “education” in the proper spots above, and you have our system of public education.

Choice matters when many possibilities exist and your destiny is at stake. The connection between education and destiny requires no explanation. Here’s a sampling of the many possibilities:

  • More philosophy, less literature and social studies (a study by the British Education Endowment Foundation found that teaching philosophy in elementary school improves language and math scores).
  • Less emphasis on subjects: described variously as phenomenon-based, interdisciplinary and holistic; aimed at understanding events and phenomena. (Finland has done this for years, and regularly tops international test scores while providing more vacation, more play, and less testing.)
  • Subject specialization: arts, performing arts, science, engineering, language-immersion, etc.
  • More—much more—music and language in early childhood, because children learn those subjects best. (The German Socio-Economic Panel finds: “Music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance….[kids who learn an instrument]…have better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious.”)
  • Lots of recess and play (recent Harvard study officially discovered the obvious: “Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn.”)
  • Traditional humanities (emphasizes innovation and history of ideas, but also political power and heroes– “dead white males”).
  • So-called “socialist” humanities (lives of women, marginalized groups, and the working class; might use A People’s History of the United States or Lies My Teacher Told Me as a textbook.)
  • Direct instruction vs. inquiry-based or constructivist instruction

Some specific implementations include: Montessori, Playworks, Waldorf, Kipp, and other cultures with different philosophies of education and a well-educated public.

Finally, there are different beliefs about the relationship between individual and society, and accordingly different beliefs about the role of the school:

The purpose of education is to preserve a culture, “….to teach our children the values and the virtues handed down to us by our families, to have the courage to defend those values and the willingness to sacrifice for them.”—Ronald Reagan

The purpose of education is to challenge a culture, “…. to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not…to examine society and try to change it and to fight it.”—James Baldwin

There’s no reason to financially penalize families for choosing any of these educational philosophies. Any reasonable approach to education should be allowed to compete for students as an equal (to suggest otherwise is a wee bit totalitarian).

Objections are rhetorical and narrow

Standard union propaganda is that vouchers and charter schools “steal” money from public education. That falsely equates public education with government-run schools. The common-sense meaning of “public education” is just the education of the public. A child doesn’t cease to count as a member of the public because she goes to a private school.

It is true that a voucher system, with no increase in public funding to back it, would decrease the total amount of money spent on education, because it would reduce the amount of private money spent on tuition. Currently, families of private schools pay for public education twice: once in taxes to fund government-run schools, and a second time in tuition for the school they actually want. A voucher system lets them only pay once, thus reducing total spending on education. It would make more sense to say that the current system of public education “steals” from families of kids who attend private schools, by taxing them for schools that don’t meet their needs.

Another common criticism is of particular cases, rather than the underlying idea. It may be true that many implementations of school choice are corrupted by politics. But, that’s like arguing all environmentalism has been refuted, because, you know…Stalin and stuff. Showing that Betsy DeVos is wrong is not the same as showing that school choice is wrong (not that I’m comparing the Trump administration to Stalin, or anything).

School choice is not inherently conservative. Much government-run education in America features portraits of establishment heroes, a flag in every classroom, and regular recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s meager fare for families wanting a school on the James Baldwin model. Since governments represent majorities, reducing government control empowers the margins, the source of society’s most interesting thinking.

Less government means less politics

Suppose all so-called “public schools” are abolished. Public education is provided by the free-market and publicly funded. In other words, everybody gets “education stamps”, i.e. vouchers. In Medicaid, families with more expensive needs get more assistance. The same would be true of education, in the case of learning disabilities.

How would it be better? A reasonable libertarian position places the burden of proof on authority. Advocates of government monopoly, not their opponents, should have to go first and prove their case. Nonetheless, here are some good reasons to consider a subsidized, free-market approach to public education.

Suppose you and other families want a type of education not offered by your district, say, more music in early childhood. Traditionally, you would have to take your idea for a music-immersion school to the proper government agency. You would meet with an “education administrator”, evolutionary cousin of the politician, who would nod politely and understand your feelings.

Since having your feelings understood was not your goal, your fellow parents and you are outraged. Since you are outraged, you make a lot of snarky Facebook posts and gain an audience with the superintendent who nods politely and understands your feelings.

Teachers’ unions see school choice as a threat to “public education” (by which they mean, unionized education).

Good luck partnering with the teachers’ unions. They see school choice as a threat to “public education” (by which they mean, unionized education). You could probably wrangle a meeting with a labor leader who would nod politely and understand your feelings.

Eventually, a reporter nibbles at the cheese of many angry parents, and your issue assumes its place in the natural order as a source of ad revenue for Google.

That’s the traditional account of public education in America. The stereotype always oversimplifies. Often as a result of grassroots activism by parents, school districts nowadays often offer a variety of approaches to education, such as publicly funded Montessori, magnet, and immersion schools. These options are often implemented as charter schools, precisely because parents’ power to choose has forced the institution of public education to adapt in order to stay relevant.

In general, more choice means less bickering. It’s harder to blame the government for the lack of a music-immersion school, if people can enroll in such a school without financial penalty yet nobody takes the initiative to start one. It’s also harder to complain if somebody does start a music-immersion school, and it can’t maintain sustainable enrollment. That’s true logically, but more importantly (since people hate logic), it is true psychologically. A society that expects the government to solve every problem will tend to have a blaming culture.

We keep hearing that education in America is broken, and international test scores prove it, and the reason it is broken is that it cares too much about test scores. Rather than engage in these illogical and endless arguments over whether “schools” (what schools? some schools? all? most?) emphasize testing too much, too little, or just the right amount, we should simply let parents choose whether they want a test-oriented school, or not.

Of course, maximizing school choice doesn’t mean lowering standards. The food supply is regulated and subject to standards, yet allows a free-market level of choice. You have to spend food stamps on real food, and you should have to spend vouchers on real education. Schools should not be allowed to deny global warming, promote religion, or teach respect for President Trump. The pursuit of truth has a few bare minimums.

More choice means better data for research

We have farmer’s markets, food co-ops, Walmart, and Whole Foods, as well as organic, conventional, local, and free-range because people have both a) different philosophies about food, and b) the power to choose. Choice is what creates opportunities that the free-market fills, and the opportunities provide information about what people value and what works.

Equal funding for all legitimate philosophies of education means more kinds of schools. It means more tests of hypotheses about education, and that advances the science of education.

Maybe, by offering more choices, we meet more needs, and graduate more students. Maybe maximizing kinds of education maximizes human potential.

Charter and private schools do not “steal” from public education: they educate the public.

A true free-market in education, actually identical to how we obtain groceries, may prove unworkable. Math is not a banana. (For one thing, kids like bananas.) The thought-experiment aims to sharpen thinking about schools and freedom, and especially to increase awareness of stereotypes and propaganda. Charter and private schools do not “steal” from public education: they educate the public, they are public education. School choice is not religious in principle. It is anti-dogma in principle, valuing the fit between school and student, asserting the validity of many paths.

Choice in education is morally equivalent to choice in how to live your life. If your life begins as a blank canvas, then your brushes and box of paints are your education, and everybody deserves a free choice of tools as they paint their masterpiece.

  • Ben is a public employee, teacher, and union member in Portland, OR.