More on School Choice

A while back, I made a plea to the left to "come to the dark side" and consider school choice.  In this post, I didn't argue about quality or efficiency improvements, but about diversity:

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never
going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is
impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents
object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the
Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and
overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents
object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents
object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some
parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem,
while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't
learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just
test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one
day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly
increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these
softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by
just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side.
Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking
about rolling back government spending or government commitment to
funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use
that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of
their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine,
they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus
on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their
kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love
nature and protect the environment - fine, do it...

Today, Jeff Jacoby, via Cafe Hayek, is making much the same argument:

From issues of sexuality and religion to the broad themes of US history and
politics, public opinion is fractured. Secular parents square off against
believers, supporters of homosexual marriage against traditionalists, those
stressing ''safe sex" against those who emphasize abstinence. Each wants its
views reflected in the classroom. No longer is there a common understanding of
the mission of public education. To the extent that one camp's vision prevails,
parents in the opposing camp are embittered. And there is no prospect that this
will change -- not as long as the government remains in charge of educating
American children....

Imagine how diverse and lively American education would be if it were
liberated from government control. There would be schools of every description
-- just as there are restaurants, websites, and clothing styles of every
description. Parents who wanted their children to be taught Darwinian evolution
unsullied by leaps of faith about an Intelligent Designer would be able to
choose schools in which religious notions would play no role. Those who wanted
their children to see God's hand in the miraculous tapestry of life all around
them would send them to schools in which faith played a prominent role.

Sounds good?  Well, unfortunately, as Cafe Hayek points out, Stacy Schiff in the NY Times recently went off on an anti-choice screed.  Not just anti-school-choice, but anti-all-choice, and readers were writing in in droves to agree!  Jeez, do people really want less choice? And just because you are too lazy to handle responsible decision-making, do you really want to limit my choice as well?  And by the way, who is going to be the official cull-er of choice, and what guarantees do you have that those officials will make the same decisions as you in culling choice?  Virginia Postrel has more thoughts on choice.

The bottom line of choice is that many of those in power do not trust you to make your own choices.  I wrote on distrust of individual decision-making here.  In my article on school choice, I ended with this caution:

Of course, there is one caveat that trips up both the Left and the
Right:  To accept school choice, you have to be willing to accept that
some parents will choose to educate their kids in a way you do not
agree with, with science you do not necessarily accept, and with values
that you do not hold.  If your response is, fine, as long as my kids
can get the kind of education I want them to, then consider school
choice.  However, if your response is that this is not just about your
kids, this is about other people choosing to teach their
kids in ways you don't agree with, then you are in truth seeking a
collectivist (or fascist I guess, depending on your side of the aisle)
indoctrination system.  Often I find that phrases like "shared public
school experience" in the choice debate really are code words for
retaining such indoctrination.

Update: I feel compelled to include this quote from Radley Balko:

Critics of capitalism once predicted that free markets would wreak mass
starvation, depletion of resources, pollution, and death.

They're now reduced to bitching about too many flavors of mustard.

We've won the debate.


  1. Duane Gran:

    Often I find that phrases like "shared public school experience" in the choice debate really are code words for retaining such indoctrination.

    No, it is raised by people who realize that some day we are going to have to get along and see ourselves are participating in the society. Walling ourselves off into camps where everyone can agree with each other does nothing to further dialog. The schoolroom has always been a politicized environment, but in the past people tended to put aside their differences to focus on the fundamentals of a liberal education. Now, it seems, the advocates of choice simply want a clap-trap environment where everyone can agree that the world is 6,000 years old or some other malarky. How rational does it seem to segregate our schools over an unknowable factor, such as the origin of life?

    The advocates of choice might as well go on about preaching the value of "separate, but equal" because it makes as much sense. Why not instead put our collective (scary word, I know) effort toward the tenets of education that really matter? The more you look at the underlying agenda of the choice crowd, the more it becomes clear that they are in fact interested in creating an environment of indoctrination where the curriculum is centered on single issues.

  2. Joseph:


    How would choice lead to more indoctrination? If anything wouldn't the opposite be true? More concentration and less competition would mean less views could be taught.

  3. DaveJ:

    Duane, the answer to 'why can't we all just get along' is that the public schools have already been coopted by an ideology, have already abandoned good education, and have had a local institution (the neighborhood school) wrested away from local control and handed to the state or national government. The public schools are dismal failures AS SCHOOLS. And you seem to be just fine with that, as long as everyone shares. Well, except the children of the rich or the elite.

    Wouldn't it just be more civilized, less polarizing, to let the kids' parents decide what they should learn? Let the parents decide how to balance multicultural experience vs melting pot experience vs academics? Or, do you prefer handing over to me the choices for your kids.

    'Cause that's what you're asking me to do.

  4. lrC:

    >some day we are going to have to get along

    Which, I have no doubt, will correlate strongly with "seeing things your way".

  5. Duane Gran:

    Joseph and Dave,

    Thanks for the responses. My dissent is based on the observation that people will choose to create schools that cater to niche ideologies and world views, furthering the divide between these groups. As DaveJ points out, the battle is somewhat already under way, which is unfortunate. No school is going to teach sensitive subjects in a way that pleases everyone. In the past we assumed that instruction in the home would act a counter balance that satisfies everyone. Today, advocates of various pet viewpoints wish to push them in dogmatic fashion.

    Given this state of affairs it is easy to imagine school choice as an alternative to indoctrination, but it isn't. The better environment is one where a multitude of viewpoints are considered respectfully. Homogenizing the curriculum represents a type of disenfranchisement for students and most definitely heavy-handed doctrine.

    Believe it or not, getting along isn't about "seeing things my way." It is about dialog and not being threatened by ideas. Before we splinter our schools over ideological differences we should consider the long term consequences of doing so.

  6. Matt:

    One would think that, even being the control freaks they are, the left would be warming to school choice now that Republicans are routinely winning elections. Leftists can no longer, I think, count on retaining their iron grip on the education system long enough to get the current generation of kids all the way through school. School choice may be the only way they have to ensure that their _own_ children are never exposed to other ideas. But no, they continue to hold on to their politically-untenable notion that _no_ children should ever be exposed to ideas other than theirs.

  7. DaveJ:

    Duane, I believe we are disagreeing more about theory than about fact. Your dissent is admitedly based on what you fear people might do. Your defense of the public schools is based on what public schools should be. I don't see you looking closely at what public schools actually are, or what people are doing now to avoid the very real problems that the public schools have become.

    You and I agree that "The better environment is one where a multitude of viewpoints are considered respectfully.", but that doesn't exist. Not in public schools, not in colleges. Most public schools are representative of only the local neighborhood. You hear of urban schools where kids are ridiculed by their peers for studying too hard. I can give other examples, but it starts to read like a manfesto :). If the "better environment" doesn't exist in public schools, how can that be a reason to keep them?

    You and I also seem to agree that having people from a mix of backgrounds interact in a social setting daily will have cultural benefits. This also means that neither of us think that 'niche' or 'monoculture' schools will achieve these benefits. But you are apparently assuming that no parents will agree with this proposition, and that only niche schools will exist. That is not the case even now. Even homeschooling parents tend to seek out varied social interactions for their children. And, anecdotally, I have found home schooled kids to be much more tolerant and openminded than their public schooled neighbors. (I have taught in public schools, taught in private schools, been the school bus driver, and been involved with after-school activities, so I have some basis to compare, however limited.)

    But my overall objection is more fundamental. The primary purpose of any school must be to teach. If they fail in that mission, I don't care about anything else they may be getting right. Today's average public school fails miserably. Would you accept a car that was slower, used more gas, and wore out faster than a 1950 model? Is there any product or service that you would accept if it were demonstrably inferior to the same product or service 50 years ago? When you compare the actual tests used at the 8th grade level 50 or 100 years ago, you find that the average modern high school graduate would fail these tests. Why do you want to impose this inferior product on people who want better?

    We might disagree about how poorly the public schools are doing, but it really comes down to who should decide for the kids. You and I? The country as a whole? Or their parents? I think their parents will make fewer overall mistakes, and do a much better job of ensuring a quality result.

  8. Duane Gran:


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you are spot-on about the failings of public school, and I believe we would share many views about how the cult of self-esteem has overtaken the primary function of schooling. My anecdotal observation says that school choice will result in islands, but I hope I'm wrong. You have definitely given me something to think about, and for that I appreciate you taking the time.

  9. Rob Read:

    If you pay for Schools and teachers you'll have a School based system and a beurocracy.

    If Education funding follows the pupil then you will have an education system.

    I favour a system whereby parents are offered state loans for the cost of educating the children they produced. The loans are available at a low rate as long as the school provides a core educational curriculum (maths + english).

  10. roversaurus:

    For those of you favoring vouchers.
    Aren't you really interested in promoting
    a political agenda instead of helping children?

    You don't have to wait for politicians to
    create vouchers - they already exist.
    The above link is just one of many private
    voucher programs.

    If you haven't contributed, you're a

  11. Half Sigma:

    The more important the choice, then the more time is appropriate to spend making it and the more options you should have.

    It's riduculous that you have to choose between 50 toothpastes, but you are stuck with whatever school you are zoned for. Yet school is a lot more important than choosing a toothpaste (they are all the same so long as you brush with something).

  12. nmg:

    roversaurus, I don't think you understand how vouchers are proposed to work.


  13. Jonathan:

    We just moved to a school system with "schol Choice". The reason that they are offering the School Choice program is too raise the education standards in some of the lower performing schools. The school system wants to offer this program as one where you are able to choose the school that you wish to go to with the hopes that the population will even out the lower income families within each school. The three schools are performing at vastly different rates. Two are performing at about 52% proficiency where the third schools is at about 74%. These numbers represent the amount of students performing at or above the grade level in math and English. We moved into the school system and were asked to fill out at form which listed our choices in order of preference. When the assigment was offered, our son was placed into the school with the lowest scores, the worst teacher retention (27% turnover from last year), 4 differnet pinciples in the last 2 years and very high levels of student violence. We were not given a school choice. All of the rising ninth grade students were offered their choice last year. EVERYONE of them was offered their first choice with out exception. This year the rising ninth grade students were offered either their first or second choice. Not one was offered their third. WE WERE. The school system left no room in the most desirable school for students coming into the school system. We are mandated to attend a low performing school. We appealed the decision to the school board but our appeal was not upheld. We were assigned to the other low performing school against our wishs and the best interest of our son. We are now forced to attend a private school or move to a county that will offer the education that we were accustomed too. WHERE IS THE SCHOOL CHOICE. Our son has not been give the same treatment as the rest of his peers. He is not able to attend the shool of his choice.

  14. Jim Doyle:

    I’m not sure how anyone can really be against school choice on principle. Our present system segregates by income. If you are affluent you can either move to an affluent school district or afford to send your kid to a private school.

    Why not let the parent’s choose? I send my kid to a private school because I don’t think our public schools are very good. I am fortunate that I make enough money to pay the very high property taxes for the lousy public high school and still have enough money to pay private school tuition. The private school so happens to be a Catholic school. I didn’t choose it because of religion. I chose it because it was a better school. My kids have done great.

    The key to making choice work is to make it available to everyone and of course the funding has to follow the student. This program is already in place somewhat for college students. The FAFSA provides aid and the money goes to whatever school the student chooses. Thus everyone in my state of Pennsylvania is not forced to go to a state university. Our university system in this country is the best in the world. It allows choice. Go figure?

    The argument that private schools indoctrinate right wing Christian robots is nuts. Take a look at the success of private school graduates. These kids do not end up on welfare roles. They become the doctors, lawyers, businessman, and engineers that make this country go.

    A good test of any system is to open the doors and see how many people leave, how many people stay put, and how many new people come in. Our public schools are a prison except for the wealthy. What would happen if we truly opened the doors? I would guess that overall public school enrollment would go down. Many people would choose private schools. That is the real reason for opposition to school choice. The people that run the public schools would lose their captive audience and the guaranteed funding that goes with it.

    Public schools would not go away. Many people like their public schools and they can choose to stay in them. The very worst public schools may close. This would be a good thing. If they are terrible schools why would you want anyone to go to them?

    When you get right down to it private industry always outperforms the government.