Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This weekend I was delighted to participate in an hour-long school choice debate on Moody radio’s coast to coast network. The experience left me all the more convinced that choice advocates must continue to de-emphasize the rhetoric of markets and competition, and emphasize instead justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom. In that order.

The proponent of the other side had come armed with empty, superficial anti-market talking points. Her argument against choice was basically “we want justice, equal opportunity and diversity, not markets and competition.” So when I opened my case with “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom, and here’s how school choice delivers them,” and didn’t use the words market or competition, she was flummoxed.

Her superficial talking points would have been highly effective if I had said “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom so we ought to embrace competition and markets.” That is, sadly, because reason and logic are not the only forces in public debate. Her strategy (consciously or unconsciously) seems to have been to use certain trigger words and phrases to prompt emotional responses in the audience – responses unrelated to logic. This is, as JPGB readers know, the nearly universal strategy of choice opponents.

If we stop using the words that allow them to do this to us, we take their toy away.

Of course the quesiton of why choice improves public schools did come up, and here it was necessary to make the point that choice prevents schools from taking students for granted. The body of empirical studies on choice and what they find also came up a number of times. One can make these points without 1) making them the be-all and end-all, or 2) using the specific trigger words that allow the other side to work their emotional trickery.

A final point: personal experience, unfortunately, trumps data. I talked about having visited several private schools in Milwaukee whose existence depends on the voucher program, and the amazing things these particular schools are doing. Then I mentioned the studies finding that choice is impoving education in Milwaukee. I played this card again when a caller raised the inevitable racist talking point “parents in the suburbs are involved with their children’s education but people in those neighborhoods aren’t.” Instead of saying “the data show urban parents make good choices for their kids; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading” I said “my experience in urban neighborhoods leads me to believe they care about their children as much as other parents; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading.” And then I tried to squeeze in a mention of the data.

Of course if there were a clash between my experience and the data, I’d have to go with the data. But we have to limit our appeals to data when speaking in public. In general, we should present opinions based on experience and then briefly validate them with appeals to data.

12 Responses to Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

  1. Good points, Greg. I sometimes point out that Rosa Parks spent the last 5 years of her life trying to help create charters. I also point out that Kenneth Clark, co-author of the doll test cited in Brown v. Board of Education, wrote a strong article in 1968 urging creation of new public schools outside the control of local districts. These leaves some charter opponents “spinning.”

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    Education’s Civil War

    Viewing David Horowitz’s recent videos one might also view present debates between progressives and conservatives as a “civil war”. He urges people to “fight fire with fire”, even as he describes the left as pugnacious and the right as more reserved.

    I really appreciate Forster’s careful description of the strategy he uses to help promote the choice side in education discussions. I am reminded of John Holt in the 80s — as the home education movement started growing — saying: “Today freedom has different enemies. It must be fought for in different ways. It will take very different qualities of mind and heart to save it.”

    I have wrestled with Holt’s epistle for a long time and appreciate Greg’s approach. I have searched for good books on this topic and have just ordered two — from reader reviews — that promise to be helpful: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt & Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, Paul Boghossian.

    That’s my homework for a while unless I hear of other suggestions for tactics and strategies in this civil war, which should not last decades as David Horowitz predicts.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Since you asked for suggestions, here’s mine: no more David Horowitz. Haidt is solid gold stuff and my hope is it will help you see what’s wrong with Horowitz.

      • Tunya Audain says:

        Thanks, Greg. Have Haidt now and will await illumination. I was very impressed by the readers’ comments in Amazon.com reviews and I respect your approach and attitude.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Haidt’s weakness for evolutionary psychology notwithstanding, you could not spend your time better than on his book. Let us know what you think when you’re done!

  3. Adam Schaeffer says:

    Greg, great points here about emotion and using the opposition’s language and supposed values against them.

    But it seems most of the time the sticking point politically is not the justice/opportunity/diversity nexus, but the disruption/money nexus.

    Most voters think school choice as a general concept is good, believe it will help poor students, and think it’s better to have more choice. But they are easily spooked by claims that school choice will disrupt their school, drain funds from their school, increase their state and property taxes.

    When opponents want to scuttle a proposed choice program, they might hit the racism/not all kids angle to put proponents on their heels, but it seems to me their most powerful and commonly used weapon is the disruption/money angle.

    And on that front, a bit paradoxically, I think it pays to emphasize how limited the impact will be overall while having a huge benefit for those relatively few kids who need something different. To emphasize how it saves money and leaves more resources per child in the public school system.

    In short, structure the policy for maximum growth and expansion, but sell it as an entirely unthreatening, commonsense policy that most families will barely notice unless they need it, in which case it’s a huge help.

    But, as always, #needsanexperiment, #needsmoretesting, #empiricalquestion

    • Adam, In regard to vouchers, there is also a desire on the part of many public online commenting participants to essentially make America free from religion as fast as possible. “Not one dollar to support religion.” …. While neglecting the possibility such vouchers may “save money and leave more resources per child in the public school system.”

  4. Check out Diane Ravich’s March 22 thought on Iowa vouchers: “So, the billionaires want vouchers to disrupt the nation’s most successful school system.” … hardly an unbiased leap on Koch brothers motivation.

    In her Blog posting

    You will find the majority of the comments tending toward freedom from religion rather than addressing school quality or even a financially poor parent’s right to choose an appropriate education for their child.

    • Tunya Audain says:

      Thanks for the link to Ravitch blog. It does show one way by which the anti-choice narrative gets widely broadcast. Both the blog and the original NYTimes article on Iowa vouchers by Dana Goldstein (reproduced by Ravitch) elicited a deluge of warnings about the slippery slope to religious education.

      What is not made clear to the average reader is the political position of the writer, Dana Goldstein. She may seem relatively neutral in the NYT article, but go back 5 years to her time at Slate magazine and you get this article, Feb 12, 2012: “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids: Why teaching children at home violates progressive values”. I consider home education the canary in the education mine pit (Sweden and Germany outlaw it.). Progressivism should not interfere with home education!

      Going back to Slate to see what continuity Dana brings with her to NYT I find an even more activist article from another writer, Allison Benedikt, Aug 2013: “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”. By keeping your kids in public schools they (the schools) are bound to improve, she declares — “It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre education in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.” Don’t parents want the best possible education for their children in the here and now?

      Is progressivism in schools a religion? If radical progressive education doesn’t sound like a religion I don’t know what does. I think this angle should be brought forward in discussions of family choice in education.

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