Where Are the Evangelicals for Choice?


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on religious support for school choice:

The government school monopoly promotes a stereotype that school choice is promoted by religious fanatics, but in fact religious leaders have been underrepresented in the school choice coalition. The most likely reason is a fear of compromising the independence of religious schools – but experience doesn’t support those fears, and I hope the time has come to get past them.

Obviously some religious leaders have been very important to the school choice cause – and in many cases they were among the first to sign on, when others stayed on the sidelines. That said, compared to the numbers and importance of religious leaders in society at large, it’s surprising how secular the school choice movement tends to be.

The big missing link here, the dog that isn’t barking, is evangelicals. The general scope of their political beliefs – from religious freedom to concern for the poor – points to school choice. And they would benefit from school choice programs. Yet they’ve been mostly absent from the fight….

Evangelicals have a long history of social activism – dating all the way back to the national controversy over mail delivery on Sunday in 1811, and their widespread opposition to Andrew Jackson’s genocidal “Indian removal” in 1830….There have been two glaring exceptions. White evangelicals mostly missed the boat on the civil rights movement; fifty years later, they regretted it. Today they’re missing the boat on a movment that many of us think will be looked back on fifty or a hundred years from now the same way.

As always, your comments are most welcome!

16 Responses to Where Are the Evangelicals for Choice?

  1. sstotsky says:

    Maybe evangelicals are not fighting for “school choice” because they realize the important battle lies elsewhere? Sandra


    • Greg Forster says:

      Choice must succeed before standards can succeed:


      • sstotsky says:

        Not in Singapore or Hong Kong or S. Korea or Japan, so far as I know. Or Flemish Belgium.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Those are extremely cohesive cultures where social consensus is not an obstacle. The United States is . . . not that. Choice can create the social structure necessary to develop consensus on standards.

      • allen says:

        Inasmuch as government-supplied services are rarely paragons of excellence and almost never efficient, holding up the standards in use in Singapore, Hong Kong or S. Korea or Japan or Flemish Belgium is akin to bragging about the record of wins of your racing snails. Impressive only by comparison to their peers.

        What all such standards have in common is that they only need to be met. However much more kids may be capable of is immaterial. The standards exist to ensure only that the schools are doing what’s expected of them. Whatever else could be done in terms of pedagogy or the use of technology is of little interest.

        Free markets however aren’t so easily satisfied. Last year’s show stopper is this year’s cliche so the search for The Next Big Thing is unrelenting.

        Nor are free market’s very forgiving. A failure to deliver what the market’s looking for may be due to a lack of taste on the part of the buying public but it’s still failure. The Red Queen and free markets have one response to failure. In the political realm failure is more likely to be rewarded then punished.

        But there is a case in which Mr. Forster’s incorrect.

        Standards can succeed without choice but only if they’re carefully tailored to convince the public that the public’s expectations are being met. The public’s expectations may not be being met but as long as the illusion’s maintained the standards are doing their job.

  2. sstotsky says:

    Actually the important battle lies with admission to teacher training programs. No country has the kind of open admissions policy we generally have across all states. Prospective teachers are expected to be academically competent before they begin teacher training. Even in MA, charter schools can hire only people who have passed the subject matter licensure test. They don’t need to be licensed (to have gone through a teacher training program), but as of 2002 they had to show on a subject test that they knew the subject they were teaching. ESSA removed that requirement. The one useful, and research-based, requirement in NCLB.

    • sstotsky says:

      To previous commenter. Re: “Choice can create the social structure necessary to develop consensus on standards.”

      I understand the pious hope underlying this opinion. But has it happened anywhere and produced first-rate standards?

      Choice has existed in the Netherlands for decades (maybe longer) in the form of religious school kids attend (Dutch Reformed, Catholic, or secular)–all paid for by taxes. The country’s standards do not promote high-achievement so far as TIMSS shows.

      • Greg Forster says:

        It’s me, Sandra – Greg. (Hi!) Is my name not showing?

        Once again, a country where the relationship between cultural diversity and public systems operates in a completely different way from the American model.

        Across multiple countries there are not many clear patterns when it comes to how policy and standards relate to outcomes. Education is too culturally contingent for that. Education is such a heavily culture-bound activity that comparisons of how things work across cultures don’t tell us much.

        Here in America, choice is consistently associated with improved academic outcomes, while stronger standards are not. “But it works in Singapore!” doesn’t change the fact that so far it has not consistently worked here. It worked in Massachusetts but it’s not clear the circumstances that made this possible in Massachusetts are present elsewhere.

  3. matthewladner says:

    The empirical investigations of Hanushek and Loveless leaves one with the inescapable impression that the standards movement in America has yet to amount to much of consequence. The response of the standards movement thus far seems to be to cover their ears with their hands and repeat “La La La!!!!”

    In fact, alternate explanations of the MA success such as those provided by Dr. S here provide even less credence to the notion that standards are the alpha and omega of education reform.

  4. sstotsky says:

    Greg. HI. I think we should be more careful about assuming other cultures have a cohesion they actuallly don’t. Singapore has at least 4 major ethnic groups (Chinese being the largest), but all instruction from pre-school on is in English. The kids do well on TIMSS tests but not because of cultural cohesion.

    Matthew. Hi. Good K-12 standards are the beginning, as I said in my book. But student testing is not the next step. Upgrading teachers is. Hanushek doesn’t like that idea at all. I’ve never heard Loveless oppose the idea. As I’ve said until hoarse, the first step is getting K-12 standards right. Then, ideally, use them to beef up subject licensure tests for prospective teachers, PD for in-service teachers, classroom curricula, and (finally) student testing. My principle then and now was/is you don’t test kids on what they haven’t been taught and had a chance to learn, and what their teachers don’t know. CC got everything almost backwards, because Duncan, Gates, Coleman, et al have never taught and don’t understand a K-12 curriculum.

    Moreover, as Don Hirsch and I have been saying for 30-40 years, content knowledge is the key, especially in the early grades when kids can soak up almost anything more easily than when they are in HS or College. Even learn second languages under immersion conditions. It happened in this country for many decades with immigrants who lived in ethnic enclaves but had to speak English in school and on the playground (in order to understand their peers). Immigrant brains didn’t change in the 21st century.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I’m happy to accept correction from those who know more than I do when it comes to description of foreign cultures! What I will insist on, though, is that we not cherry pick examples that conform to our theories while leaving out other examples.

      The overall pattern across the globe is that there are not many global patterns when it comes to education. Here in the U.S., “standards first” doesn’t consistently raise outcomes while “choice first” does. That’s the evidence.

      • sstotsky says:

        I hate to flog an almost dead horse, but in this country we have had, in most states, not-very-good standards. So we haven’t really tested the hypothesis about standards first not raising outcomes. I agree that not-very-good standards are unlikely to raise outcomes, and CC is no exception. But in what state has choice improved outcomes and then led to better standards?

        So I’m not willing to concede that choice comes before good standards in raising outcomes. MA doesn’t show that.

      • allen says:

        Those standards are the product of the democratic process participating in which are folks who have no slightest use for standards, i.e. the public education lobby. So the result is what you’d expect, a compromise that pleases no one and, oh by the way, is resisted fiercely as an instrument to change by the public education establishment.

        Choice undoes the political power of the public education lobby thus paving the way for standards.

        Parents want to understand where their child stands on the spectrum of educational preparation and the standard implicit in the high school diploma no longer has much credibility. That means that standards will emerge since parents will demand them and schools will have to comply.

        Those schools that decide to ignore voluntary standards will suffer by comparison to the schools that don’t since they won’t have any way to showcase their strengths.

  5. sstotsky says:

    Allen, Can you make your points clearer, and with examples (i.e., states), so I have a better grasp of what you are saying?

    • allen says:

      When a state legislature or a federal department produces education standards those standards are a result of the political process and a product of the influence of various constituencies.

      A major influence in any such deliberation is the public education lobby which, contrary to the widely-fostered implication, has little use for standards that make it difficult to assure the public that everything is just fine in the Public Education Land and everyone can go back to sleep.

      What’s illuminating is why education standards are such a contentious issue.

      Previous to the enactment of education standards and the tests that necessarily follow each and every school district was in the business of setting its own standards which is to say, it was a hodgepodge. Some school districts, generally due to a small, determined and politically-savvy cadre, forced high standards of their school district. In the school district to the right there was no such cadre, no such standards and the schools sucked.

      Looked at from on high that’s a pretty awful state of affairs so various state legislatures undertook to try to bring some order to that chaotic situation by setting standards. But the standards, issuing from the political process, were ineffective. They contained numerous loopholes and lousy school district remained lousy. I’m from Michigan and the MEAP, Michigan Education Assessment Program, is a failure due to a steady fight against it by the public education establishment and weaknesses written into the law.

      A big part of the reason for No Child Left Behind was to force states to enforce their own standards. How’d that work out?

      Standards that arise from an environment of educational choice aren’t, however, so easily ignored.

      Parents want, reflexively, to know their child is getting a good leg up on life so standards that satisfy parents are both understandable and related to the goal of a good education. Those standards are unlikely to satisfy educational experts but then they don’t have all that much at stake.

      In a choice environment schools are pressured by parents to demonstrate their educational value as measured by standards. If you don’t know how good your school is doing then you have an incentive to patronize schools which make it clear how good they are. Schools that eschew standards will either suffer for the decision or have a very compelling reason why it’s a good idea in their case.

      Hopefully, that clears things up because at 400+ words this is getting to be a very long post even by my prolix standards.

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