My Debate with Randi

Today I had my event with Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, hosted by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. The video should be posted in a couple days after they finalize the transcript. In the meantime, if you’d like to see my opening remarks, here they are:

Public schools have been sticking it to many low-income and minority students since they were founded. Public schools have been segregated for most of their history by law. Even after state-compelled segregation was ended, public schools continue to be highly segregated because district boundaries were drawn with red lines separating communities by race. Outcomes for low-income and minority students remain abysmal despite huge increases in school spending, now exceeding $15,000 per pupil.

Public schools have been able to get away with this shocking mis-education of disadvantaged students because, despite all of their failings, public schools have managed to serve upper-income families reasonably well. As long as the public school system could maintain the support of advantaged families, the disproportionate political power of wealthier families protected public education from fundamental restructuring, including a significant expansion in school choice.

Upper-income families could pick suburban districts that gave them what they wanted and permitted greater parental input. The fact that wealthier families often supplemented their children’s education with enriching activities outside of school also helped mask any deficiencies in the quality or content of those suburban public schools.

These arrangements engendered a high level of affection for public education among these wealthy and disproportionately powerful families despite reports of severe difficulties in large, urban school districts. With limited direct experience of the dysfunction of urban public education, wealthy families were willing to believe that the problems stemmed from a lack of funding or from societal ills beyond the power of schools to control. Advantaged families were strongly disinclined to risk any disruption in their comfortable arrangements because of problems for other people’s children, especially when they could seize upon spending or social problems as rationalizations to leave the status quo intact.

The pandemic dramatically changed these political dynamics when the public education system failed to deliver what many advantaged parents wanted. Specifically, the public system broke faith with upper-income families by flagrantly resisting in-person instruction, prioritizing the needs of union members over those of parents. In addition, remote learning allowed upper-income families to see the instruction that their children were receiving and many were shocked by its low quality and radical content.

As suburban families organized to object to that radical content to their local school boards, they were further shocked to discover how unresponsive those school districts had become. And when the Biden Administration, with union support, issued a letter orchestrating an effort by the FBI and government agencies to investigate protesting parents as potential domestic terrorists, the inability of even wealthy parents to control the public education of their own children was laid bare.

Education is an extension of parenting and parents want significant control over how their children are raised and educated. The current arrangements of the public education system survived because wealthy parents believed they had that control. Once it was revealed that they also lacked this control, they mobilized politically to regain the autonomy they desire. This resulted in an enormous increase in educational choice over the last year, creating 7 new programs and expanding 21 existing ones in 18 states.

School choice is a one-way ratchet. Once people have experienced an expanded set of options, they are very resistant to having those options taken away. In addition, the broken faith between the public school system and advantaged families will take a lot of time and effort to restore even after schools return to in-person instruction and disputes over masks and vaccines fade. This means that the political pressure for further expansions of school choice remains strong for the foreseeable future.

This last year has given us a glimpse of the future and that future contains a lot more school choice. Because education is an extension of parenting and because parents are best situated to raise their own children, all parents should have control over where and how their children are educated. It is a shame that it took a pandemic and bad political miscalculations on the part of the unions to make advantaged families experience the same feeling of being out of control that poor families have long felt. But now that wealthier families are getting on board for school choice, all families can benefit from its expansion.

11 Responses to My Debate with Randi

  1. Gary Gut says:

    FBI letter not as alarming as you imply. Curtailing threats of violence is a legitimate DOJ responsibility.

    • George Mitchell says:

      No one says threats of violence should not be addressed. The impetus for the DOJ action provides scant evidence that the FBI needs to be involved. The use of the phrase domestic terrorism is ridiculous. Local police are the obvious response to any documented threats.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I agree that the FBI letter is kabuki, but the reason administrations engage in kabuki is because it produces political benefits. Well, like most things that produce political benefits, it also produces political costs. Jay was not asserting that the FBI letter would really produce inappropriate prosecutions or civil rights abuses, he was pointing out that the administration’s allies are paying a political cost for the kabuki they demanded.

  2. George Mitchell says:

    Jay….Great presentation.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    The point here that I think many in the movement have underappreciated, because until the pandemic they were strongly incentivized not to appreciate it, is that wealthier parents understood the radical implications of school choice and were reluctant to disrupt the system for the general good as long as they thought it was working well for them. (The impact of school choice on suburban housing prices, for example, is a topic that neither side is incentivized to understand.) And of course the government school monopoly employs so many people that truly vast numbers of Americans have an employee of the monopoly as a friend or relative, further disincentivizing clarity. But bad experiences of the kind Jay recounts here provide clarity despite such obstacles.

    Many have heard Machiavelli’s claim that it is better to be feared than loved, but most are unaware that he immediately added “but it is imperative not to become hated.”

  4. Tunya Audain says:

    That is one great opening statement, Jay. Looking forward to video presentation.

    Wonder what the old-timers in the school choice movement feel about latest events? Jack Coons, bless his soul, has argued for school choice as family policy for decades. In 2002 he famously said: “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. And what we have are flabby families at the bottom end of the income scale.”

    For too long, public education has been the captive of education establishment self-interest. Education Consumers Foundation president, J E Stone in his August 21 paper — Critical Race Theory is an Excuse for Educational Failure — said “Instead of a focus on teaching effectiveness, CRT shifts the public conversation to community-wide racism and invites school leaders to strike a virtuous pose by leading reform. From their perspective, agreeing with CRT may be a more comfortable choice than facing their own shortcomings and reckoning with the real problem—especially if parents and taxpayers don’t squawk.”

    That statement highlights Jay’s observation that the pandemic enabled families “to see the instruction that their children were receiving and many were shocked by its low quality and radical content.” And now, more parents are squawking, and school effectiveness and family choice are becoming hot topics at the family table, in the media and political circles.

    Imagine, school choice for all families may be an experience we’ll see in our lifetimes!

  5. Tunya Audain says:

    The matter of family choice in education is very political. Hoarding of a scarce resource — as publicly-funded free schooling has become — is being challenged on grounds of basic fairness, that is, as Unfair. Jay P Greene presents a remarkable analysis that advantaged people, having enjoyed the benefits of massively funded public education for many years, are reluctant to part with their advantage by opening-up choice. But the pandemic has laid bare the bones of an undisciplined field (education), which now also relegates the previously advantaged to the same status of those previously left behind. Good faith expectation of effective education for all is being severely challenged.

    That’s my opinion of the gist of JPG’s argument. Hoarding is my characterization of this impulse and I apologize if I misconstrue Jay’s intent.

    This Harvard series about school choice is needed in these uncertain times. People can still register for the continuing discussions, and catch-up on past ones. This next Fri Nov 12: Is political support for school choice gaining or losing ground?

    As a Canadian observer of North American education — long involved from the consumer angle as parent advocate and home education promoter — I would like to add to JPG’s theme.

    From my old blog ’83, I mention unfairness that advantaged insiders in the education system enjoy and which they use to keep others away. These insiders are teachers, trustees and other employees who are also parents and would gain for their own children what others may not. Here are a few points:

    – They have the inside track on what is possible, whom to see, the vocabulary and the opportunity to pursue their interests.
    – They are not easily discouraged from pursuing their rights and entitlements.
    – Regarding special services, they know how to get assessments, tutoring, funds, and accommodations.
    – Aware of the timely needs of child growth and development — a child only once — they press their case with adeptness and urgency that in other parents would be seen as “pushy” or “helicopter parenting”.
    – Frankly, they know parent rights in education and just don’t want them written down for other parents to know.

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