Trump and School Choice


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I was grateful to be included in this Washington Post article on Trump and school choice yesterday. My post on Trump’s racism and illiberalism gets a mention, but the Post is right that another division is also important:

Free-market purists believe that parents know best, that they can choose the best schools for their children without intervention, something that could force poor-quality schools to close. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that intensive oversight and regulation are necessary to ensure that the schools from which parents are choosing are high-quality.

As long as Mike is taking his lumps out in the wild, wild west of Arizona, maybe he could rethink which side of this unavoidable civil war – unavoidable because opponents of parent choice have made it so – he really wants to be on.

Another point: I don’t blame the Post for describing advocates of parent choice as “free-market purists” while describing opponents of parent choice more neutrally. It is we in the parent choice camp who have chosen to make deep investments in “free market” ideological rhetoric. Everything we’re saying about markets is in fact true, but it’s a bad idea for us to make “markets” and “competition” the main points in favor of choice.

This was one of the main arguments of my recent series on “the next accountability.” As I wrote at the end of the series:

Markets and competition as drivers of efficiency and performance are important. But they do not provide the moral norms and narratives needed to inform the next accountability. The best case for universal school choice does not center on them. These should be secondary, not primary themes.

We should develop ways of articulating these principles as the basis of the next accountability:

  • The purpose of education is to help children develop the knowledge, skills and virtues they need to live a good life—achieving and appreciating the true, good and beautiful—and to live as good citizens of a community where we disagree about what is good.
  • To cultivate these, we need teachers who are wise professionals (possessing the qualities they seek to instill, and guided by an independent professional ethic) and schools that are free communities (where shared purpose, not the arbitrary dictates of distant authorities, shape a shared life).
  • Teachers and schools can educate the individual student for free pursuit of the good life as he or she sees it, and also for good citizenship and respect for others’ rights in a diverse community, because of what we share in common as human beings and as fellow Americans.
  • Teachers and schools should be held accountable to do this by parents and local communities—the more local the better—because they are in the closest moral and social connection to schools, and can therefore hold them accountable in ways that support their social fabric rather than disrupting it.

Is this too much to ask of a highly polarized education reform movement, strongly committed to moral narratives that center on either markets or test scores? I’m looking forward to finding out.

9 Responses to Trump and School Choice

  1. bkisida says:

    Good stuff!

  2. pbmeyer2014 says:

    Thanks, Greg. What’s often missing from the discussion is pointing out the false dichotomy between free market and regulation (as the Post excerpts see to do). The “choice” is really between regulation by the market or by government. And what we need to say is that the former is a much efficient form of regulation and accountability than is government. Thanks. -peter m.

    • What is also missing from the discussion is the fact that most parents have no choice at all at present. Most want a decent curriculum for their children. But charters are chiefly for low-income kids, and government regulations tie both public schools and public charters into knots. No relief in sight.

      • pbmeyer2014 says:

        Exactly! Every once in a while state-level education bureaucracies can put it together (e.g. Massachusetts when Sandra Stotsky was in charge), but that, unfortunately, in the era of “government schools” is rare. We’ve got to create the environment that allows curriculum competition as well as regulatory competition and that will only come by allowing more charters into the education waters. Parents are not dumb; like everyone else, they know a good school when they see one. –pm

  3. Glad to read that pbmeyer is for expanding choice to include middle-income parents so that they, too, can escape a failing public school system. How would you structure giving choice to all parents, Peter?

  4. Stephanie Dunn says:

    Glad you called out his racism, and the idea of parental choice is great, but…
    Free markets only work with freedom. The concept doesn’t work when the consumers are being forced to consume something they may not really want. The behaviors of free markets don’t apply to a compulsory activity. Add to that the tendency for people to question the ability of parents (at least, those ‘other’ parents) to make good decisions, rather than acknowledge that parents may actually have different goals than policy makers, testing companies, politicians, reformers, OECD, Ravitch, or Tilson, and you have a market that is anything but free.
    Of course, the same holds true for the ideals of the ed schools and teacher’s unions. Their goals are about themselves, and about what they believe parents and students SHOULD want. Noone is actually allowing for parents and students to set their own goals. Some may want academic rigor, some may want the arts, some may want to commune with nature, but all absolutely must be given real freedom, including the freedom to say “no thank you”.
    The appropriate goal for education is self determination.
    Instead, the two sides of this false dichotomy argue endlessly about who gets to set the goals for all the families forced to waste their lives in school.

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