The Future of School Choice: Bickering about Words!


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Will Flanders is right that school choice is not welfare (you heard it here first) and more broadly that school choice has not benefitted from appropriating the Rawlsian language of fairness (ditto). But he is wrong to think we would be better off making big investments in the free market movement’s language of markets and competition. I’m as big a fan of Milton as anyone (proof) but that language has all the wrong non-cognitive associations for the present moment. Flanders cites Jonathan Haidt but doesn’t seem to have learned the biggest lesson Haidt has to teach, which is that the non-cognitive content of language is more politically important than its cognitive content.

What we need is a new language of justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom that both Rawlsianism and the free-market movement used to have, say, fifty years ago, but that neither currently has in a very robust form. Much, much more about that here.

4 Responses to The Future of School Choice: Bickering about Words!

  1. Dan says:

    Agreed. Haidt’s insights also inform us that the perceptions (and lingo) of libertarians rarely resonate with the masses, but can even repel them. According to his research, this arises due to fundamental blind spots that are deeply rooted, possibly even genetically influenced in some cases. This shouldn’t negate anyone’s efforts to advance choice *through* the free market — just in how we discuss it in the public square. The two approaches need not be in opposition, just kept to their domains where they have potency. In other words, while libertarians make great economists, never put a team of them in charge of PR.

  2. My piece does not make the claim that arguments of fairness should be abandoned in discussing school choice. Indeed, the conclusion of the editorial reads in part, “As advocates, we cannot and should not abandon the fairness-based argument for school choice.” What the piece is meant to reflect is that an over reliance on fairness arguments can cause problems for choice advocates on our right flank. At least in Wisconsin, some staunch conservatives are beginning to see school choice as something akin to a social welfare program—only for the poor.

    This suggests to me that school choice advocates in Wisconsin have been overly successful in making fairness arguments for choice, while the principals of economic liberty to which conservatives are sympathetic not been imparted often enough. I do not disagree with Dr. Forster that a message of “justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom” is the language that we need to use, I would simply argue that “freedom” has been pushed to the wayside far too often.

    • Dan says:

      This looks to me, Will, more like a case of the constant need to tailor our messaging to our audiences. The dream of crafting one-size-fits-all messaging is typically futile at best, often rife with efforts that backfire. A “Marketing 101” oversight that hampers many noble efforts, particularly among conservative and libertarian causes. Hence the endless frustration of Frank Luntz, perhaps even his eating habits.

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