Amy Gutmann poses with a student dressed as a suicide bomber at her Halloween party in 2006. Talk about having no taste.
A regular indictment leveled against advocates of school choice is that they have no taste when it comes to the quality and purpose of education. As Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Democratic Education, put it: “advocates of parental choice and market control downplay the public purposes of schooling, and this is not accidental. It coincides with the idea of consumer sovereignty: the market should deliver whatever the consumers of its goods want.” If schools should do whatever the consumer wants, according to this way of characterizing choice supporters, then those choiceniks can’t favor particular educational standards or approaches. Choice supporters wouldn’t be able to denounce a Jihad school, for example, because consumer preference is the only issue that matters.
This caricature of choice supporters is mistaken on many levels. First, just because choice supporters want to empower parents to select their school doesn’t mean that the choice advocates are unable to have their own preferences about what schools would be better for people. Similarly, I might believe that smoking is bad for one’s health, even as I am willing to recognize other people’s liberty to choose to smoke or not. Or perhaps an easier example — I may think a movie is awful and contains harmful messages and still believe that people have a right to see it. Believing in liberty doesn’t mean being indifferent to what other people like or do. It just means not wanting to coerce them into doing or liking what I prefer.
Favoring choice does not require abdicating all taste. Advocating choice requires believing that people have a right to have their own bad taste. Favoring choice can also be supported by a belief that people are less likely to make bad choices for themselves than someone else would on their behalf.
Second, most choice supporters recognize some need for public regulation of the schools that are chosen. These regulations could be as minimal as the public health and safety regulations that affect restaurants or could be more extensive to include instructional issues. The point is that almost no school choice supporters are anarchists, so there is no need for the Amy Gutmann’s of the world to act as if they all are.
Choice supporters can have personal taste and standards and most also favor public standards that place limits on choice. At least most choice supporters would have better personal taste and standards than to pose for a photo with a Halloween party guest dressed as a suicide bomber, even though almost all of us would recognize someone’s right to have such awful taste.