Pondiscio Makes Progress

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I am delighted to report that Robert Pondiscio seems to have realized how wrong he was when he wrote a month ago that “school choice may ‘solve’ the CRT problem for a family, but it can’t address the clear interest every American holds in the education of the next generation.” His new post is simply chock full of ways in which school choice can address the clear interest every American holds in the education of the next generation. Great to see this progress!

He now realizes that the way forward for education in a pluralistic society is “to turn up the lights on what is possible when there’s room for a wide variety of schools, curricula, and cultures.” The stark contrast between this and the demand for uniformity in his earlier article is a delight to behold.

Soon, he may even get far enough to realize that an environment of educational pluralism would itself constitute the most profound pedagogical structure for cultivating in children an appreciation of the American experiment in human rights, religious freedom, social pluralism and equal justice under law.

Pondiscio does engage in a little slight of hand, responding to my previous post but avoiding completely its main argument, which was that choice is the only realistic political strategy for accomplishing the changes in public schools that Pondiscio himself wants to make. Pondiscio is in favor of changing the way public schools handle topics like CRT. So am I. And if I understand him rightly, the changes he favors are substantially the same as the ones I favor. The difference is that I have a viable strategy for achieving the changes that we both want, and he does not.

I will, however, cop to his charge that I think it’s absolutely essential for a strong bond of trust and cooperation to exist between parents and schools. Pondiscio chooses to characterize this as an argument that the value of choice is “to allow families to avoid exposing kids to ideas and curricular content parents don’t like.” I would prefer to say that adult citizens absolutely should not stop fighting with one another over how the next generation of Americans should be educated, but they should abandon the tactic of holding one another’s children hostage at gunpoint in these fights. It’s not only wrong, it also doesn’t work, and it inflicts enormous collateral damage on the educational environment.

Ironically, Pondiscio even portrays me as seeking to hold other people’s children hostage at gunpoint because I am in favor of everyone on both sides stopping their current practice of holding other people’s children hostage at gunpoint. Pondiscio writes: “This version of choice feels lifted not from a heart-warming rom-com, but from a mob movie: ‘You’ve got a nice family. It’d be a shame if anything were to happen to ‘em.'”

It was the state that came into my home and took my child away, at gunpoint, to educate my child in the way the state thinks best. And when I point out what is happening, Pondiscio says I’m the one who made this into an ugly confrontation and threatened other people’s children.

The French have a saying: Cet animal est très méchant: Quand on l’attaque il se défend.

But at least Pondiscio is making progress. His embrace of educational pluralism is warmly welcome.

Let’s hope he also no longer believes we should hold up an extremely tiny, unrepresentative, cherry-picked selection of bad private schools in order to discredit school choice. (“The hyper-elite, prodigiously expensive private schools favored by America’s gentry are among the very wokest schools.”) Your typical private school is something like a central-city Catholic school or an exurban evangelical school – not, I think, hotbeds of toxic wokism.

And let’s hope he no longer believes that it’s impossible for Mexico to privatize its nationalized oil monopoly because there aren’t any private oil companies in Mexico to do the work. (“Choice as the remedy for CRT debates ignores that the percentage of families with ready access to more than a small handful of quality options is probably quite modest.”) If the government gave out free hot dogs on every street corner, the private hot-dog stands would all close because they would have no customers – but the absence of private hot-dog stands would not be an argument that only government is capable of delivering hot dogs on those street corners.

As heartened as I am by the stark contrast between his earlier article and his latest post, I do see one troubling common thread. In both, Pondiscio is demanding that we must not connect school choice in a substantive way to the debate over how we educate children into the American experiment in equality and freedom – the commitment to human rights and equality under the law that makes America exceptional.

I decline the invitation. The only reason I’ve ever been interested in school choice is because it’s the only education policy that really takes seriously the American experiment in equality and freedom. I’m really glad that it also has the side effect of closing the education gap and all that.

But American exceptionalism has always been my only real interest in school choice.

As Milton said (and Alexis de Tocqueville said almost exactly the same thing in a longish passage in Democracy in America, but Milton was more pithy): A society that prioritizes equality over freedom will get neither; a society that prioritizes freedom over equality will get a high degree of both.

One Response to Pondiscio Makes Progress

  1. Tunya Audain says:

    It doesn’t matter how many educators get on the bandwagon of school choice it’s not likely to happen in the lifetimes of children today. Nor are we likely to see self-interested educators leading the charge!

    Economic decisions— especially due to post pandemic indebtedness — might drive the move to more efficient use of taxpayer funds. One practical approach would be to have legislatures provide vouchers to families, even at cut-rate amounts of present per-capita funding. New schools, expanding already current pandemic learning pods, scholarships to private schools, comprehensive tutoring, etc. would emerge. The spirit of “free schools” of the 70s lingers still.

    The way the school choice debates continue today does not promise any breakthroughs or results in any near future. The reason: Choicelessness abounds. As Jack Coons says: “The rich get choice and the poor get conscripted.”

    It is worthwhile to visit the work of Jack Coons, law professor, who just last year at the age of 91 is still unyielding that school choice must start for lower-income parents. See his 2002 article, School Choice as Family Policy, Feb 2002, https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/school-choice-as-family-policy-john-e-coons?source=policybot

    “It’s a shame that there are no social science studies on the effect of choicelessness on the family. If you are stripped of power — kept out of the decision-making loop — you are likely to experience degeneration of your own capacity to be effective, because you have nothing to do. If you don’t have any responsibilities, you get flabby . . . They’re stripped of their sovereignty over their child.”

    Besides expecting that economics enters the school choice issue to bring about needed change we should also see social planners pursue the “choicelessness” question to justify delivery of wide ranges of educational opportunities for all.

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