Might "Red Statism" Cause the Left to Embrace School Choice?

After the last election, the Left is increasingly worried that red state religious beliefs may creep back into public school, as evidenced in part by this Kevin Drum post on creationism.  My sense is that you can find strange things going on in schools of every political stripe, from Bible-based creationism to inappropriate environmental advocacy.  I personally would not send my kids to a school that taught creationism nor would I send them to a school that had 7-year-olds protesting outside of a Manhattan bank.

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.

Yes, I know, private schools to fit all these niches don't exist today.   However, given a few years of parents running around with $7000 vouchers in their hands, they will.  Yes, there will be problems.  Some schools will fail, some will be bad, some with be spectacular (though most will be better than what many urban kids, particularly blacks, have today).   Some current public schools will revitalize themselves in the face of comeptition, others will not. It may take decades for a new system to emerge, but the Left used to be the ones with the big, long-term visions.  The ultimate outcome, though, could be beautiful.  And the end state will be better if the Left, with its deep respect and support of publicly-funded education, is a part of the process.

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 necesarily 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.

In other words, are you OK if Bob Jones high school or Adam Smith high school exist, as long as Greenpeace high school exists as well?  Or do you want to make everyone go to Greenpeace high school exclusively?

I honestly don't know how folks on the left would answer this question.  Is Kevin Drum hoping that all parents have the choice of a secular education available to their kids, or is he hoping that all parents are forced to have a secular education for their kids?  Is he trying to protect his kids from intrusive creationism supporters or is he trying to impose his beliefs on the children of those creationism supporters?  I can read the article and his fear of creationism either way. 

  • http://bradreed.livejournal.com Brad Reed

    I think you have to have some standards for what constitutes "schooling." I have no problem with people home-schooling their children, but if, say, they're taught all about Jesus and nothing about mathematics, we're going to have a pretty useless society.

    (And yes, I know most homeschoolers do indeed teach their kids math.)

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  • http://www.flowidealism.org Michael Strong

    The hard Left, the opinion leaders, NGO leaders, foundation heads, and academics, will resist school choice for some time to come. That said, most cultural creatives are already warm to school choice. I have met many perfectly nice left-liberal NPR-listening educated young professionals who are against school choice - until their kids reach 4 or 5 years old and they look at their options. At that point the thought of a voucher that will allow them to send their kids to a Waldorf or Montessori school for free, instead of being dumped in the local public school, becomes very appealing to them. Mothering Magazine, the counter-culture alternative to Parenting magazine, published an article by a traditional Leftist attacking Milwaukee school choice and all of the letters came back in support of school choice - these people want good schools for their children, period. I have seen some survey results that show a majority of parents of young children favoring school choice; the most solid electoral constituencies against school choice are often older people (who may feel a loyalty towards public schools from back when they were better schools fifty years ago) and property owners in good school districts (often Republican) who perceive themselves as having nothing to gain from school choice and everything to lose. I am a libertarian from the cultural creative demographic and am writing a book making the case for school choice to cultural creatives; Heartland Institute has my first chapter posted at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17771.