Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

March 21, 2017

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(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.


Illiberal Education Is Not a Public Good

March 10, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

University education isn’t a public good deserving taxpayer subsidies if it’s going to actively undermine our democratic and republican form of government, I write in OCPA’s Perspective in light of recent events at OU. Among other examples, this one stands out:

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

Today, there is no longer a unique need for universities because they produce technical knowledge. Two hundred years ago, that may have been a key argument for institutions of higher learning; today, it is the universities who are constantly striving to catch up to Google and other leading technical innovators.

If universities are a public good, it can only be because there is an inseparable connection between truly liberal education and political freedom – because liberal education inculcates a respect for the integrity of the human mind that is the only possible justification for political freedom.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Because I’m not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!


When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

February 3, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest on the unwisdom of means-testing school choice programs:

Sometimes the worst thing you can do for the poor is “help the poor.” What we want to do is tear down the walls that prevent poor people from making themselves into non-poor people. That’s what “helping the poor” ought to mean. But all too often, it really means building walls between poor and non-poor people, reinforcing the divide rather than tearing it down.

Throwing middle- and upper-income people out of school choice programs is a classic example of hurting the poor by “helping” them. It creates a sharp, government-enforced division between two separate and very unequal populations. On one side of the wall are poor people, who receive school choice; on the other are non-poor people, whose tax dollars provide them with school choice.

This division shuts down educational innovation, greatly weakens the political coalition in favor of choice (and of protecting private schools from government interference, which is clearly going to become a threat whether there are school choice programs or not) and in the long run creates an us-versus-them power competition between the poor and the non-poor that the poor are going to lose.

As always, your thoughts are welcome!


Jason and EdChoice Hit the Big Time

January 28, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jason and EdChoice have both hit the Big Time bigger than Blank Reg – Jason is joining the EdChoice team as national policy director.

Not sure whom this is a bigger win for! Jason hits the big time by joining EdChoice and EdChoice hits the big time by hiring Jason.

What I do know is that thanks to his work here at JPGB, an image search for Jason’s name turns up Dawn of the Dragon Slayer, Emperor Palpatine and “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Let’s make sure we keep Jason in the think tank business and well away from the Imperial Senate!

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In time, you will call ME National Policy Director!


The Mythbusting Never Ends

January 12, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest under the somewhat discouraging title “Ed Choice Mythbusting Never Ends.” At least I’ll never be out of a job:

The funniest thing in the article is where McCloud mocks the emergence of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and then complains about precisely the problem ESAs solve. After making fun of the choice movement for switching from vouchers to ESAs—because apparently it’s a bad sign if you’re willing to move from a good idea to a better one—McCloud asserts that “vouchers would inflate the cost of private education.”

Indeed, vouchers do inadvertently raise private school tuition. That is one reason the movement is switching from vouchers to ESAs, which allow parents to buy education services without creating an artificial tuition floor for schools. It’s also true that even ESAs raise economic demand for education services in general—but that’s just another way of saying they empower parents to pay for those services!

McCloud’s article provides a public service in one respect: It collects almost all the school choice myths in one place. Maybe I don’t mind so much if the defenders of the status quo make my job easy after all.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated!


Nine Lemons Dancing

December 24, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Via Byron York, this delicious datum from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel regarding the Milwaukee teachers’ union:

After Act 10’s passage, the 4,500-member Milwaukee union took a hard look at the local’s work and found that 85% of its time went toward litigating disputes and misconduct cases involving 2% of its members.

But remember, the unions are all about delivering a better education to your kids, rubber rooms and lemon dances are a myth, and voluntary unionism is a threat to the republic.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!


Trump and School Choice

December 14, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I was grateful to be included in this Washington Post article on Trump and school choice yesterday. My post on Trump’s racism and illiberalism gets a mention, but the Post is right that another division is also important:

Free-market purists believe that parents know best, that they can choose the best schools for their children without intervention, something that could force poor-quality schools to close. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that intensive oversight and regulation are necessary to ensure that the schools from which parents are choosing are high-quality.

As long as Mike is taking his lumps out in the wild, wild west of Arizona, maybe he could rethink which side of this unavoidable civil war – unavoidable because opponents of parent choice have made it so – he really wants to be on.

Another point: I don’t blame the Post for describing advocates of parent choice as “free-market purists” while describing opponents of parent choice more neutrally. It is we in the parent choice camp who have chosen to make deep investments in “free market” ideological rhetoric. Everything we’re saying about markets is in fact true, but it’s a bad idea for us to make “markets” and “competition” the main points in favor of choice.

This was one of the main arguments of my recent series on “the next accountability.” As I wrote at the end of the series:

Markets and competition as drivers of efficiency and performance are important. But they do not provide the moral norms and narratives needed to inform the next accountability. The best case for universal school choice does not center on them. These should be secondary, not primary themes.

We should develop ways of articulating these principles as the basis of the next accountability:

  • The purpose of education is to help children develop the knowledge, skills and virtues they need to live a good life—achieving and appreciating the true, good and beautiful—and to live as good citizens of a community where we disagree about what is good.
  • To cultivate these, we need teachers who are wise professionals (possessing the qualities they seek to instill, and guided by an independent professional ethic) and schools that are free communities (where shared purpose, not the arbitrary dictates of distant authorities, shape a shared life).
  • Teachers and schools can educate the individual student for free pursuit of the good life as he or she sees it, and also for good citizenship and respect for others’ rights in a diverse community, because of what we share in common as human beings and as fellow Americans.
  • Teachers and schools should be held accountable to do this by parents and local communities—the more local the better—because they are in the closest moral and social connection to schools, and can therefore hold them accountable in ways that support their social fabric rather than disrupting it.

Is this too much to ask of a highly polarized education reform movement, strongly committed to moral narratives that center on either markets or test scores? I’m looking forward to finding out.