It's School Choice Week, one more faux celebration created as a hook on which to hang a hundred press releases.
School Choice Week does indeed launch a thousand events and commentaries, and plenty of them are not very serious puff pieces by not very serious people. But some choice supporters are reasonably thoughtful people, and their words are worth reading if for no reason other than to spark the mental exercise of figuring out why, exactly, you disagree with them.
Which brings me to Neal McClusky's pro-choice piece for CATO, the Koch-flavored Libertarian thinky tank. It's short and sweet and draws a line directly between school choice and freedom. And I appreciate the clarity of his argument, because it helps me understand why I believe he's wrong.
First, the liberty part.
Freedom must have primacy because society is ultimately composed of individuals, and leaving individuals the right and ability to control their own lives is fundamentally more just than having the state – be it through a single dictator, or majority of voters – control our thoughts, words, or actions.
The sticky part here is "the right and ability to control their own lives." The ability to control your own life is directly connected to wealth and status, and wealth and status are directly connected to the wealth and status of your parents. The state is not the only entity capable of limiting individual freedom, and more and more often, it does so not out of its own interests, but at the behest of the corporate interests who have paid mightily to have government represent their interests and not the interests of citizens without wealth, access of power.
Then, the extension of the liberty argument:
But a corollary to free individuals, especially when no one is omniscient and there is no unanimous agreement on what is the “right” way to live, or think, or believe, must be free association – free, authentic communities. We must allow people and communities marked by hugely diverse religious, philosophical, or moral views, and rich ethnic and cultural identities and backgrounds, to teach their children those things. Short of stopping incitement of violence or clear parental abuse, the state should have no authority to declare that “your culture is acceptable,” or “yours must go.” Indeed, crush the freedom of communities and you inevitably cripple individual liberty, taking away one’s choices of how and with whom to live.
This is a swell ideal, and I would love to live in that country, but it requires a level playing field and a shared definition of free. For instance, I can't think of any way in which same-gender marriage in any way infringes on or damages my perfectly happy heteronormative (second) marriage. But I know plenty of people who are pretty sure there IS an infringement, and now are equally angry and certain that they have been told their culture must go. When it comes to crushing the freedom of communities, there is wide difference of opinion of what constitutes crushing, and there is no level playing field for the debate between those cultures. For centuries the traditional straights have had the upper hand, and the loss of that upper hand feels to many of them as if their freedom is being crushed.
The state does not have to declare winners and losers (and in fact I agree that it mostly should not), but it does have an obligation to even the playing field and to decide when certain communities are not fighting fair, which means it has to decide what is fair, which means while it may not decide winners and losers, it sure will look like it. While there's a level on which McClusky's ideal is an appealing and worthy goal, I cannot imagine how, for instance, we would solve, sans government, the collision of one community that believes blacks should be subservient and poor colliding with another community that is composed of blacks who don't accept racist foolishness.Or a community of wealthy corporate heads who believe they should be able to reap all the benefits of corporate success and the community of laborers who believe they are entitled to a share as well.
Nor does it seem like a blow for equality to look at a authentic, poor urban community and an authentic, rich gated community and declare, "Well, let's let everyone be free to pursue their own goals without government interference." It's like a race between a one runner standing on the starting line and another tied up at the bottom of a deep hole, and the race officials say, "We can't untie that runner and lift them out of the hole-- that would be unequal treatment. Only if we leave that runner tied up and in the hole will it be a fair race."
In fact, one of our problems with the traditional system is that some folks identify authentic communities and then cut them off at the knees. Let's not fund schools in non-wealthy non-white communities and then just say, "Well, that's just how things are" when in fact we made things that way by failing to properly fund the schools we have.
This (to digress) is my problem with Libertarianism-- it assumes a level playing field. Rich guys who run companies are pitted against little guys who work in factories and that's okay, because Libs assume that the rich is rich because he earned it. But when the little guy wants to organize, say, a union, that's wrong. The rich guy has extra power because he deserves it, but for the little guy to try to acquire more power is wrong and unfair. Let the wrestling match between The Rock and Betty White commence. libertarians are too often happy with an uneven playing field because they think it's uneven in a just and correct way, not the result of previous unjust game-rigging.
If there are things on which all agree, choice is moot – all will teach and respect those things. But if we do not all agree, forcing diverse people to support a single system of “common” schools yields but three outcomes: first, divisive conflict; then, either inequality under the law – oppression – when one side wins and the other loses, or lowest-common-denominator curricula to keep the peace.
Again, I appreciate his clarity because I can see exactly where we part ways. I agree at the start-- if we all agreed on what schools were supposed to do, we'd have far fewer educational debates and faux reformers. But his list of three outcomes is incorrect.
Divisive conflict is inevitable only if we imagine a school that must treat each student identically. There is no reason to imagine such a school. Properly operated, a school can be designed to meet a wide variety of needs for a wide variety of students. It's not even particularly hard to do. We only need a common denominator (low or otherwise) if we are putting all the students in the exact same class in the exact same program (one more reason that national standards and national standardized tests are stupid ideas). One side does not need to win at the expense of the other. My school's vocational training program does not need to thrive at the expense of a high-powered college prep program. Black students and white students, rich and poor, super-smart and struggling-- we can support all of those student populations at the same time. There is no reason at all for winners and losers.
In fact, charters do not even have to thrive at the expense of public schools. All we need is a commitment to fund all of these things. The problem is not that we are trying to force diverse people into common schools-- the problem is that we want to do it on the cheap.
The practice of squishing diverse people together in a system that denies sorting them into clear cut winners and losers is a foundational American practice, going all the way back to a Constitution that virtually every founding father hated some portion of. The idea that all cultural disagreements must be solved by the complete and utter obliteration of one side is a relatively modern invention, and we are not better off for it.
There is no net gain to freedom and excellence of our nation if we set up separate schools so that everyone is educated only among those with whom they agree. And I don't imagine that any government can erase all differences and create a happy land of perfect equality. But choice does not fix any of the problems McClusky refers to-- it does not make our country, or the people in it, more free.