The conversation around public schools is becoming more polarized by the day, with several apparently intractable sides seemingly unable to agree even on the most basic goals of a public educational system. In our current political climate, itself shot through with strife with some calling for a national divorce, it is no surprise to see this polarization in our schools. Education, according to Gallup polls, was tied with health care, national security, and gun rights as the most important issue to voters in the 2020 elections.
At the vanguard of this issue are a series of legal actions over what can and cannot be taught in schools. Though critics of these changes point to the legislation of classroom materials as a violation of free speech, it’s not immediately apparent this argument applies to public schools. Chris Rufo, who is leading the charge at making these legislative changes, argues that, because of the compulsory nature of school, censoring certain types of curricular content is not a free speech issue. However you feel about Rufo, his mission has drawn eyes to the uneasy arrangement that exists between parents and the state who would educate their kids. Students are required to attend school. Because of this, they are exposed to many ideas which parents, on both sides of the political aisle, are deeply uncomfortable with, sometimes striking at the heart of their belief system. The solution? School choice.
Because so much of today’s controversy is motivated by differing stances on teaching Critical Race Theory, there is a sinister charge made by anti-choicers that the movement is racially motivated. However, despite the insistence of some commentators that school choice began at the insistence of those who would see schools remain segregated, the need for school choice is not motivated by the racism of radical conservative ideologues. And if we’re going to apply the genetic fallacy to only school choicers, it’s only fair we do the same to public school advocates. After all, Brown v. Board of Education was necessary for a reason. So whichever direction you’re reasoning from, if racist origins are your concern, schooling in America needs to be radically overhauled.
There are many philosophies regarding the proper role of education: is it to teach beauty and truth as claimed by the classical educators? Is it to create activists and critical thinkers? Is it to prepare students for a life of work? There are not an infinite number of ideas for what public education should do, but there are a plural number and our current model wherein schools are the battleground for fighting out these ideas, with our students taught by competing ideologues who don’t present a consistent ethos to them has resulted in the messy situation we find ourselves in. The solution? School choice.
Perhaps the most impassioned advocate for school choice is Corey DeAngelis. His motto “fund students instead of systems” draws attention to who should be benefitting from educational policy. DeAngelis, who calls for the use of educational savings accounts, argues that school choice should be funded by putting money into the hands of parents, who can then choose where to spend it. In his vision, we get a fully funded system of choice, which would prove beneficial to those on either side of the political aisle.
If you want your child to go to a school that focuses on teaching historical events as a slow yet study march towards progress, with America as a consistent but flawed force for good in this march, then who is some politician or bureaucrat to tell you different? On the flip side, if you want your child to go to a school which centers slavery as the most important fact in American history and views the country as one which is fundamentally flawed to this day and in sore need of politically motivated, young activists to change the country, then that should be available to you too. In a pluralistic society such as ours, these differing points of view are healthy. Let each of them get their fullest hearing, endorsed by the populations of people who have chosen to be in the schools teaching them, and ultimately be reality tested once the respective graduates enter into the larger society.
A lot of the conversation around school choice revolves around the idea of the effectiveness of certain models, or the outcomes they produce. And this conversation is indeed important. What I find often missing from these conversations though is that a child’s score on certain tests is not the only outcome worth considering when we discuss education. What about the outcome of the child’s fundamental attitude towards art and poetry? What about the outcome of the child’s belief in their own efficacy in affecting political change? What about the outcome of the child’s ability to file their own taxes, wire a bedroom, or replace a radiator? To some parents, each of these outcomes will be more or less important. To all parents, the possibility of sending their students to a school which focuses on these outcomes is close to nil. This should no longer be the case. School choice. Now.