Friday, April 15, 2022

Choice vs. Culture Battles

Some school choice fans are pretty steadfast in their belief in free market dynamics and in the need to let all parents choose as they see fit. But as the culture debates heat up, a whole group of choicers are turning out to be less committed to choice than to other things. Note these three stories.

In New Hampshire (in a story that we've looked at before), the Croydon community had actually installed a pretty robust choice system that allowed parents to choose any public or private school in the area. But it was expensive, and the Free State Libertarians who run much of the town's boards decided to cut the funding for the district in half. This means that most of the choice that parents in the district previously enjoyed are now are available only if the parents can afford to chip in a pile of money themselves. This will be a particular challenge as the town does not have its own high school. But it turns out that choice for parents is not as big a deal as cutting taxes and getting government out of the education biz. As I've often argued, school choice--particularly the voucher brand--is too often not about empowering parents, but about saying to them, "We cut you a check. Educating your children is now your problem, not ours. Good luck."

In Alabama, Tim James is a candidate for governor, and part of his platform is that public schools are failing and "school choice must be available for the parent and guardian of every student." Further, he says, "we need options tailored to each child's needs." 

Well, not each child. Turns out that Alabama is home to a unique charter school, the Magic City Acceptance Academy, a school that accepts all students but puts a special emphasis on LGBTQ-affirming atmosphere and programs. James has targeted this school in a campaign ad; the principal of the school says James is "scaring the hell out of our kids." James is using the school as a target, saying that as governor he would "have opposed the formation of this school and would have vetoed any budget that funded it." He charges the school with "exploitation" of children and "not education." 

So school choice is not as important as clamping down on that LGBTQ stuff. Or, as the James campaign calls it, "perversion." Meanwhile, the school has hired some extra security.

In Georgia, two bills tried to make their way through the legislature this year, and they tell us something about the collision of culture warriors and choice.

One was a version of the education savings account bills that have been cropping up across the country. As with most of these bills, it included a non-interference clause saying that just because a school was getting taxpayer dollars via voucher, that didn't mean that the state had any authority telling them what to do.

The other was a version of the standard anti-CRT and Don't Say Gay language with one striking difference--SB 613 sought to extend prohibitions against discussion of gender roles and sexual identity to any "private or non-public" school receiving voucher money. This clearly does not go well with an injunction against state interference in how voucher-accepting schools can be run, but apparently in Georgia the thinking is that the state should leave private schools alone when they want to discriminate against LGBTQ students, but it should interfere if the private school wants to demonstrate acceptance of those students. 

As the culture battles continue, I expect we'll see more of this-- choice is great, but only if it includes the acceptable choices. Parents should have the right to choose--but not those choices that accept LBTQ students are human beings or that teach all that Black Stuff. In the end, for some folks, school choice is really just another mechanism for imposing their preferred culture on everyone else, an Orwellian option in which "choice" actually means "no choice at all."

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