A while back, I made a plea to the left to "come to the dark side" and consider school choice. In this post, I didn't argue about quality or efficiency improvements, but about diversity:
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...
Today, Jeff Jacoby, via Cafe Hayek, is making much the same argument:
From issues of sexuality and religion to the broad themes of US history and
politics, public opinion is fractured. Secular parents square off against
believers, supporters of homosexual marriage against traditionalists, those
stressing ''safe sex" against those who emphasize abstinence. Each wants its
views reflected in the classroom. No longer is there a common understanding of
the mission of public education. To the extent that one camp's vision prevails,
parents in the opposing camp are embittered. And there is no prospect that this
will change -- not as long as the government remains in charge of educating
Imagine how diverse and lively American education would be if it were
liberated from government control. There would be schools of every description
-- just as there are restaurants, websites, and clothing styles of every
description. Parents who wanted their children to be taught Darwinian evolution
unsullied by leaps of faith about an Intelligent Designer would be able to
choose schools in which religious notions would play no role. Those who wanted
their children to see God's hand in the miraculous tapestry of life all around
them would send them to schools in which faith played a prominent role.
Sounds good? Well, unfortunately, as Cafe Hayek points out, Stacy Schiff in the NY Times recently went off on an anti-choice screed. Not just anti-school-choice, but anti-all-choice, and readers were writing in in droves to agree! Jeez, do people really want less choice? And just because you are too lazy to handle responsible decision-making, do you really want to limit my choice as well? And by the way, who is going to be the official cull-er of choice, and what guarantees do you have that those officials will make the same decisions as you in culling choice? Virginia Postrel has more thoughts on choice.
The bottom line of choice is that many of those in power do not trust you to make your own choices. I wrote on distrust of individual decision-making here. In my article on school choice, I ended with this caution:
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 necessarily 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.
Update: I feel compelled to include this quote from Radley Balko:
Critics of capitalism once predicted that free markets would wreak mass
starvation, depletion of resources, pollution, and death.
They're now reduced to bitching about too many flavors of mustard.
We've won the debate.