Hess and Gallo Get Words Wrong in NRO


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In NRO today, Rick Hess and Sofia Gallo accuse the school choice movement of using “overheated” and “alarmist” rhetoric. They assert that since school choice is the opposite of neighborhood schooling (which all smart people know to be true, since we say it and we’re the smart people), choice advocates need a new, toned-down rhetoric to convince jumpy soccer moms that choice is no big deal and won’t have any big effects on anything.

How is this wrong? Let me count the ways:

1) “School choice advocates are wild-eyed ideological extremists” is a timeworn smear used by the Blob to demonize reformers, and anyone paying attention should have seen through it by now. For Hess and Gallo to resort to this lazy stereotype is offensive. The examples they bring to justify their claim that choice advocates are overheated and alarmist (choice is like Uber for schools!) redefine the whole concept of “weak tea.”

It is Hess and Gallo whose rhetoric is overheated and alarmist, in claiming that choice advocates are overheated and alarmist.

2) Hess and Gallo admit that choice is not only increasingly successful politically, it is growing more popular over time. Their efforts to create the impression that choice has a public perception problem (choice underperforms when compared to pie-in-the-sky hypothetical utopian alternatives in heavily biased survey questions formulated by the servants of the Blob at PDK!) don’t change the basic facts.

By Hess and Gallo’s own showing, choice is winning in statehouses, winning in governors’ mansions, and winning in public opinion polls. No doubt that success will ebb and flow in the future, as it has in the past. But choice has better public perception today than at any time in its history.

3) School choice is not in tension with local control, it is local control. For half a century, governance of district schools has moved further and further out of the local neighborhood and up the bureaucratic ladder, from the building to the district to the state and federal levels. There is no plausible plan for reversing that movement, other than school choice.

The only possible future of “neighborhood schools” is neighborhood schools of choice. Nothing else but choice will return governance of schools to the neighborhood level.

Because guess what neighborhoods are made up of? Parents. And parents who are given school choice exercise that choice as members of their local communities, gathering information and forming relationships in neighborhoods.

4) Parents tend to like their own schools, so Hess and Gallo recommend that choice advocates adopt a message along the lines of “choice won’t change schools.” Because that’s how you sell a reform – argue that it doesn’t matter and won’t change anything.

Or perhaps the message will be, “choice won’t change schools for people like you, it will only change schools for those other people. You know the ones we mean.”

Jay has been pointing out for years that the biggest mistake education reformers have been making is to argue that their policies will benefit a small and relatively powerless portion of the population, and offer no benefits to larger and more powerful constituencies. Hess and Gallo want choice to double down on that strategy.

5) To the extent that choice advocates could do better in framing their rhetoric, the problem is not that choice is percieved as a threat but that choice is percieved as of limited value because it is disconnected from moral imperatives like justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom. School choice advocates often assume that when they talk about markets they are affirming those imperatives, but in fact the language of markets does not and will not invoke those commitments for most people. A new language of school accountability through choice is needed to connect school choice to the things that matter most.

We shouldn’t talk as if choice should matter less, but as if it should matter more. Because it does.

3 Responses to Hess and Gallo Get Words Wrong in NRO

  1. I didn’t read the Hess and Gallo piece as so negative. I thought they were cautioning choice supporters away from trashing existing public schools as a strategy for increasing interest in choice. Even if I don’t think many choice supporters are committing this error, it still seems sensible to repeat this advice.

    I wish they would have emphasized that choice could expand support by expanding the beneficiaries beyond narrowly targeted groups of disadvantaged people. But even if the piece didn’t say what I would have said and cautioned against an error I don’t see many making, I didn’t find it so problematic.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Upon reflection, I think I’m more offended by the piece’s intellectual laziness than by anything else. “Sure, choice is gaining in public opinion polls – but hey, check out this overwhelmingly biased PDK survey question where people choose a pie-in-the-sky utopian alternative over choice! Obviously choice has a major public perception problem!”

      It’s one thing if you criticize me and put some thought into it. It’s another thing if you criticize me in a way that makes clear you don’t think I’m worth thinking about very hard.

  2. For what it’s worth, I’ve tried to emphasize the benefits of chartering for families throughout the state, rural, suburban and urban. We’ve also pointed out examples of constructive responses by school districts to the reality of public school choice throughout the state. Here’s a link to a newspaper column that appeared in a number of suburban and rural Mn newspapers. http://centerforschoolchange.org/2017/09/minnesota-parents-explain-why-they-selected-a-charter-public-school/

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