Friday, February 10, 2023

School Choice Hasn't Won

There's an old saying: when you add religion and politics, you get politics.

Well, when you add culture wars and school choice, you get culture wars.

Robert Pondiscio points to the recent school choice winning streak in Iowa and Utah (and it looks like Oklahoma may well follow, though Virginia and Wyoming have decided to get off the choice train for the moment), and he attributes the success to the choice movement's embrace of the culture wars. 

He points out that the "test score" argument was never going to move many people either way, and I agree. The Big Standardized Test has been around long enough that folks aren't that impressed any more. And when he criticizes the "unquestioned assumption" that "the purpose of schools is to raise test scores" he's echoing a critique that many of us have offered for ages. 

But in the alliance between school choice advocates and culture warriors, I question exactly who is successfully using whom.

The school choice movement has always included free marketeers, folks who believe that education would best be delivered by a free market navigated by parents with freedom to choose. The free marketeer faction contains their own sub-groups, including folks who sincerely believe in the free market, folks who sincerely believe in Freedom, folks whose opportunity-tuned noses smell money, and folks who share the Kochian desire to simply eliminate government so that they don't have to pay taxes to provide services to the Lessers. For that last group, choice itself is just a tool for dismantling the public school system.

The free marketeers have made alliances before, most notably when they teamed up with the social justice crowd, pushing choice as an equity issue and giving us the claim that school choice is the "civil rights issue of today." Like the free marketeers, the social justice crowd contained an assortment of sincere believers and less-principled opportunists, plus a solid helping of right-tilted folks pretending to be left-ish (looking at you, Democrats for Education Reform). 

For a variety of reasons, that detente fell apart (Pondiscio was one of the first to point out the cracks). The two groups wanted different things, and when Trump happened, some folks found it hard to stick with the coalition, and when Obama and the Dems went away, some folks found it unnecessary to stick with the coalition. 

There's a certain irony in the choicers' new alliance with a different sort of social justice movement. Jay Greene announced it and has been pushing it ever since, even as Christopher Rufo has made himself the face of the anti-woke choice crowd.

The trouble with this alliance is that the culture warriors are not remotely interested in school choice at all.

From the attempts to suppress reading rights to the anti-LGBTQ laws and policies to the regulations coming out of CRT panic, the culture warriors have made it abundantly clear that what they want is a school system that conforms to their particular set of values and beliefs. Take back the public system and force it to conform, or set up a new parallel system in a constitution-free zone--or both. Any of those is fine. 

For those choicers who see school choice as a tool of dismantling public ed, that's great. But for folks actually interested in school choice, the culture wars are a dead end.

Bringing me the long away around to this point-- school choice hasn't won any victories in Iowa or Utah or even in its beloved paradise of Florida. Culture warriors have won victories, and used some school choice language to do it. But Ron DeSantis isn't expanding choice--he's constricting it. 

It may be that the free marketeers believe that letting the culture warriors blaze the trail will start with scorched earth and end with a thousand beautiful school choice flowers blooming. I think that's a miscalculation, that culture warriors will keep stomping on every flower that offends their delicate, narrow sensibilities. 

For those who simply want to see public education demolished, who see culture wars and school choice and any other opportunity that presents itself as a means to dismantling public education, a part of government that they'd like to see on the chopping block right beside social security, medicare, and welfare, none of these distinctions really matter as long as the fire keeps burning. But for those who sincerely want to see school choice? That's not what's happening.

I've seen that movie before. My county housed a very early Tea Part chapter, and it started out as an alliance between local Libertarian types and local religious christianist conservatives. Within a year or so (as also happened to some degree on a national level) the Libertarians were squeezed out, because when they said "Everyone should be free to choose as they wish," they meant it, but the religious conservatives meant, "Everyone should be free to make only the right choice, and we will tell you what that choice is." (Just like our forefathers the Puritans, who came here not to escape religious persecution, but to establish a place where they could enforce their own strict rules).

The culture warriors are not interested in choice or freedom; they are the embodiment of Wilhoit's definition of conservatism-- Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

So maybe Jay Greene and Jason Bedrick and Core DeAngelis and Christopher Rudo and the rest can take a victory lap. It would be interesting to know what exactly they're celebrating, because something may be on a bit of winning streak right now, but it's not school choice. 


  1. Thoughtful as always. But let's follow this idea where it leads. Why are school choice people school choice people? If they're not technocrats and testing hawks (they're not) why be a choice person -- heck, why concern yourself with schools at all? Maybe it's because you want to make sure the next generation keeps the wheels spinning so the Social Security checks coming to Sunny Acres Assisted Living. But more likely it's because you're concerned with the character and values of the next generation of Americans. So we're all culture warriors, no?

    1. Huh?
      Are you suggesting that public schools are disregarding character and values?
      Or is it about the types of character traits and values that public schools push?
      So choice advocates are offering better character and value options?
      So parents want a choice in the type of character traits and values that they think a school offers?

      A pretty nebulous theory you have there. No?

      Or is it really about modern tribalism?

  2. So school choice has nothing (or little) to do with better educational opportunities for children? Interesting.

  3. On the day when Florida Senate Republicans propose their school choice bill containing the start of unraveling overburdensome regulations to the public school system (that all of you gadflies completely ignored, obviously) this one is a real well timed laugher