School Choice’s Time for Choosing


“This is wheeeeeeere the party ends…”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The most realistic thing about fairy tales is this: You don’t realize you’re making a titanic moral choice that will determine whether you triumph or die until the moment after you have made the choice.

Betsy DeVos will likely make a very good education secretary if 1) she can prevent her department from sabotaging her and 2) she focuses on choice and puts Common Core and all associated initiatives to rest. #2 is highly likely given what was said during the campaign. #1 is always something of a crapshoot. Being a conservative cabinet secretary is an inherently dangerous undertaking.

But I’m less interested in her choices and more interested in the choices of the school choice movement.

Trump will be president. All of us who work on policy issues have to live in a world where Trump is president. It’s not necessarily a good idea for every decent person to shun him; that means government will be run by scoundrels like Trump.

Every movement needs its Vaclav Klauses as well as its Vaclav Havels – people who are willing to hold their noses and work for a corrupt regime. You simply can’t get anything done otherwise, because there are no non-corrupt regimes.

Milton went to Chile and advised Pinochet. When challenged, he said: “I gave him good advice.”

But if they forget to hold their noses, if they think the regime is good, the movement dies. And they will forget if no one plays Vaclav Havel and goes to jail for telling the truth about the regime.

My biggest fear is that the school choice issue will become tied to Trump. It can never be said too many times: Donald Trump is a notorious racist who discriminates against blacks in his businesses, said a judge of Mexican ancestry couldn’t judge him impartially, constantly flirted with the alt-right, and refused, three times, to repuidate the KKK when first asked to do so. (Just in case this is unclear, the KKK is a criminal organization that murders people and exists to make war on the US government in the name of white nationalism. If Trump wants to learn more about it, he can ask his attorney general, who had a Klan leader executed.)

We in the school choice movement have spent a generation building bridges between the conservatives and libertarians traditionally associated with the issue and progressives and ethnic minority communities. We can’t afford to throw all that away.

But in the last few years the Common Core disaster has polarized the education reform movement. CC progressives (not identical with choice-friendly progressives, although there’s overlap) have declared war on conservatives, denouncing us as racist for the crime of not being progressives.

So far that hasn’t had much effect on the choice wing of the movement’s relationships with minority communities. But we choice people increasingly feel outcast, despised, wronged by those whom we had regarded as friends and allies, but who turned on us the moment they found it expedient to do so.

The temptation will be to say “F all these progressives who stabbed us in the back for Common Core, and who now tell us we’re racist solely because we’re not left-wing extremists. Let’s go all in with someone who won’t tell us we’re evil for being conservative.”

And of course that will be the death of us. Because then we really will have turned a blind eye to racism.

We should keep the focus where it belongs: on the states. If we’re offered a big federal push to impose choice on the states, we should say “thanks, but no thanks.” On the merits, yes, and for other reasons, too.

As someone once said on this issue, you can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.

We can work with Trump (on, for example, choice in DC and other federal jurisdictions) the same way we might work with any bad person who holds office. But with the demonization of conservatives in the movement and the big opportunities for choice that Trump will soon likely be offering us, the temptation will be to forget what we spent the last generation saying: That school choice will die if it doesn’t build a trans-partisan, trans-ethnic coalition.

15 Responses to School Choice’s Time for Choosing

  1. bkisida says:

    This hasn’t been said enough, or at all. Most in the beltway are getting in line, willing to shake the hand. Willing to rationalize it. It takes courage to stick to your principles. Happy Thanksgiving.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I hope it’s clear I don’t object to some people shaking the hand as long as they remember what they’re doing and avoid captivity. Milton could advise Pinochet because he had no illusions about him.

      The rest of us can help people like DeVos by keeping the real nature of Trump front and center in the public eye.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you as well!

      • Dan says:

        Well stated, Greg. Hopefully enough folks on Team Choice can continue to help the ongoing rescue of education while avoiding entangling their equipment with the Titanic. These are dangerous times to be so close to the the ship.

      • bkisida says:

        Yes, it’s clear. What’s not clear is where to draw that line. Obviously DeVos and others taking jobs on the inside must shake the hand (and I don’t know her, for all I know she’s a supporter in more ways than one, so I don’t know if she’s holding her nose or not). But there are many others, the typical reform edupundits, that seem to be salivating at the chance to shake the hand, apologize for the hand, convince themselves the hand isn’t really that bad, the hand didnt really mean all the racist things said for the past two years. It’s like a Walter White treatment, with people forever apologizing, offering ulterior motive, anticipating salvation and redemption, well past the point of reason.

        He will hurt Team Choice. He already is. In the long term, it may not matter. As has been argued here, very effectively, choice builds it’s own constituency. But short term, the political lines will be drawn and it’s going to be uncomfortable. And even long term, I think there’s reason to be concerned.

      • Greg Forster says:

        He hurts everyone and everything.

        He was right about one thing though. I am indeed, before he is even inaugurated, tired of all the winning. Heartily sick and tired of it.

  2. […] we are championing. As Greg Forster of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation notes in a piece on DeVos’ nomination (as well as an earlier commentary), the failure to openly, honestly, and […]

  3. Here are a few comments on “classroom choice”–what many parents would go for.

  4. Adam says:

    “If we’re offered a big federal push to impose choice on the states…”
    What if there is a federal push to ALLOW states to individually opt-in to portability for existing federal funds. Those are two different animals (in the same way I wouldn’t want to force parents into any choice program).

    • Greg Forster says:

      Where do those “federal funds” come from? Taxpayers in other states.

      I made this mistake with NCLB. I said “as long as we can’t stop the Feds from spending billions on education, we might as well get something for it.” But that just feeds the beast.

  5. […] Ever since our president-elect nominated school choice champion Betsy DeVos to be education secretary, there’s been a vigorous debate amongst us education nerds about the proper way to think about school choice. It’s a civil war! Another divide in the reform movement! […]

  6. […] associated with the issue and progressives and ethnic minority communities,” Forster wrote in a recent blog post. “We can’t afford to throw all that […]

  7. […] with the issue and progressives and ethnic minority communities,” Forster wrote in a recent blog post. “We can’t afford to throw all that […]

  8. […] and ethnic minority communities,” Greg Forster,  a senior fellow at ­EdChoice, wrote in a recent blog post that Brown quotes. “We can’t afford to throw all that […]

  9. […] minority communities,” Greg Forster,  a senior fellow at ­EdChoice, wrote in a recent blog post that Brown quotes. “We can’t afford to throw all that […]

  10. […] in the context of my work in the faith and work movement (in my education policy work I am under fewer restraints). I’m making an exception here because the issue has been prominently raised in the movement, […]

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