Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"What's so great about choice?" A Response

[My comment exceeded the length limit so I'm just starting a new post.]

There's a lot to unpack here. Ravitch's book is getting a lot of press, and deservedly so. She's capturing an important zeitgeist here: the pushback among public school teachers and schools of education, in particular, against the Bush/Obama reform agendas that promote increased high stakes testing, teacher evaluations, and "school choice." I'm particularly pleased that you framed the question as you do, Scantron, as a more general issue with "choice" itself. I'm very much interested, as you know, in when/how choice became an educational and parental value, one as important--if not more so--than traditional concerns about local/parental control of schools.

I look at this "metaphysical" love of choice (which I think you put nicely) more historically, having arisen from a series of policies, cultural and demographic changes, and ... parental choices ... throughout the 20th century. Choice may be an important philosophical value, but in my mind it was one that arose after the fact. Milton Friedman may have put it in writing, in other words, but for the tens of thousands of Catholic parents who wanted an alternative to the “Protestant” public school system; for the white parents who were calling for greater parental choice to avoid desegregation; and for the tens of thousands of black parents calling for it as the true meaning of desegregated school systems, freeing up choice was simply the only way to achieve their goals. Today, calls for school choice sound very reasonable to black parents stuck in ever-decaying urban cores, as they do to the Fred Hiatts of the world living quite comfortably in suburban areas where the choices are, as you put it, between a pretty good public school and a very good private school. But in places with county-wide school districts as in Wake County, which I’ve blogged about before, school choice can appear rather ominous. If you’re a parent who hates the idea of your kid being bused out of your neighborhood, a discourse surrounding “local control” of the neighborhood school might be a lot more palatable than market-based solutions.

I’ll save the historical discussion for another time. In the meantime, I’d like to push back a bit on your characterization of the conditions that give rise to school choice. The reality is that we don't live in Lake Wobegon, where everyone agrees on a common national curriculum (see Texas), and all students are above average coming from supportive above average families. In that sense, I do see this as a "market of heterogeneous preferences." And, more importantly, I don't see how schools of choice present less of a problem to a common curriculum than have local and state boards of education (again, see Texas). Privatized schools generally don't look drastically different from public schools when it comes to curriculum, the reason being, I suppose, that skills and knowledge are determined by a quasi-marketplace: from colleges and universities, to textbook markets (for the third time, see Texas), to parents. The demand for schools that don't teach important skills and knowledge, however we want to define that, is not very high.

My problem with choice has less to do with curriculum and more to do with the other, intangible things schools can teach. I do think (as does Ravitch) that schools should be places where different kinds of people from different backgrounds are brought together, and I think public schools have the potential to do this better than do privatized schools—though I will note that there are studies that suggest that private schools have far more diverse student bodies than we might assume. I also think, going off on another thing you mentioned, Scantron, that the taint of private interest is real. Competition has its benefits (and, unlike Ravitch, I think that the positives of competition applies to schools as well) but it also has it costs. Literally. Schools that have to compete have to engage in all sorts of ridiculous spending on marketing, not to mention the inevitable corruption (equally inevitable as large public monopolies) that comes with privatization, particularly in job-depleted inner cities where these contracts represent a real bonanza.

Turning from my special interest to yours, I’m wondering, What do the ancients have to say about choice? I can’t recall them extolling the virtues that come with opening up choices, but I might be wrong. Obviously there’s an important emphasis on the kinds of choices we make (moral, immoral), but I’d be curious to hear if anyone you’ve read talks about the importance of choices per se, whether politically, ethically, etc.

4 Comments:

Blogger scantron said...

Thanks for venturing back into the Huffy Crew woods on this one -- I was wondering if I was just going to continue barking at the moon all alone!

I like your comments here, in large part because they put us closer in mindset than we might have thought before. Let me say one thing about the historical origins of the "choice" philosophy, though -- although you're right that there are important cases where there were concrete choices made by people without a coherent philosophy behind them (the 'owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk' argument), aren't there a different set of concerns now? I mean, no mainstream educational expert is going to say now that the choices in question involve Catholics and Protestants, for example. I take it that "school choice" is now largely about the economic/free-market solutions to the problems of entrenched public sector bureaucracies and of inner city blight. This movement has a lot of brainpower behind it that basically originates from the private sector and not from historical nuance. Or am I being too exclusive?

Moving on to your larger points, I should have been clearer when I talked about curricula. I didn't mean that every child in America should have to read "Moby Dick" but rather that what we would call a "liberal arts education" of whatever sort *is* necessary for kids. That may sound like a pretty wide view that glosses over a lot of important details (like the Texas school board's decisions), but I was mainly talking about the danger that market-based and/or competitive schools will look more like trade schools than places of critical thinking. Now, I have no information in front of me about such trends, so I wonder how likely such developments are: might charter schools with private donors take a more economistic approach to education that treats students more as potential future workers than citizens? On the other hand I have little problem with a set of rules that allows for considerable local choice of reading lists, etc., among different public schools.

The question of the ancients (I'm going to stick with the ancient Greeks) is hard because, as you say, questions about ethical choices are much more profuse in the extant evidence than questions about choice among commodities in relation to quality. On the more intangible end of the spectrum it was definitely thought a mark of democratic freedom (in Athens, at any rate) to be able to choose your "way of life" or "lifestyle" -- "to live as you like," as Aristotle puts it in the Politics. (This sentiment can also be seen in Pericles' Funeral Oration in Thucydides.) This sounds tolerant and liberal but there were of course limits to the permissible extremes of one's behavior. Still, this sort of choice was valued by democrats, as opposed to cultural conservatives like Plato who looked upon freely chosen behavior with no philosophy to guide it as anarchy. For the democrat, being prevented (especially by force) from making a choice was tantamount to being treated slavishly. But this tells us little about the array of choices available and their "public vs. private" character.

On the more material side of things, people did of course enjoy greater choice if it meant, e.g., delicacies instead of the usual barleybread and watery wine. Old Comedy especially gives voice to this, like when characters imagine a "Big Rock Candy Mountain"-like paradise of goodies or enumerate the goods that flow into Athens from the different corners of the empire. But that's more about the fantasy of having total control and limitless abundance than living in a world of choices amongst scarce goods.

All schools back then were private, in any case!

7:07 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I think I might comment on this more in depth at some point, but with regard to para. 3: Are you messing with me/Texas?

3:58 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I think that an interesting and looming question, and one that I have not really been able to fully unravel (so bear with me as I attempt to enumerate and in the process make some sweeping assumptions) in this discussion is a notion of choice as it relates to the particular exercise of taxation.

Decisions about choice with regard to schooling, as with any other public finance issue, are shot through with very peculiar relationships between that which is excised from me and the means by and extent to which the individual taxpayer is able to exert their choice and will over these types of decisions. On the one hand, the state is charged with taxing and spending for the general welfare (or public good or whatever other amorphous totality you want to call it) but on the other hand we seem to have a very personal relationship with our tax dollars, "forced volunarism" almost. In the former view, there seems to be a strong argument to be made that this money, although you make it, is not necessarily entitled to you; our gains are always based in some small part on collective ventures, efforts and work, and taxation is simply the reappropriation for the public good of those things which make all other private and public activities feasable. On the latter view though taxes and spending seem to have to relate to the particular desires of the taxpayer as individual with desires wants etc. We could read some democratic valor into this, but it seems to be much more entitled than that; these are not people wishing to have a hand in steering the ship of state, but wanting to see direct returns to scale on their taxation. It should be obvious from my skewed descriptions what I think ought to be preferred here.

These problems of choice and seeing "my tax dollars at work" seems to be made more complex by the (often bizarre) jurisdictional intricacies that one finds in the United States, as Federal, state and local property tax funding (Texas being a state that is overreliant on property taxes as a proportion of local budgets, which I think cannot be forgotten in the decisionmaking process of the Board of Education rationale) overlap and cross paths to fund education (public, but also private if we look at the totality of incentives, programs, etc. having to do with schooling).

Here, I'm not arguing that we should totally Federalize school funding or whatever, that would be too much and not enough of a solution, and wipe out some of the beneficial effects of regionalism and geography. What I am worried about, however, is how the basis of funding schooling on very narrow lines of property ownership and neighborhood has noticeable adverse effects on the poor and people in neighborhoods with low property values for whatever other reasons. (see Texas again, for the San Antonio ISD v. Rodriguez case, where the Supreme Court 5-4 decided that education was not a fundamental right and that discrimination in school funding based on wealth was acceptable as long as the funding scheme that did so was 'rationally related to a legitimate state interest'). The parochialism of these individualistic interests of property tax areas and the heavy excise on property that seems to directly contribute so much to schools only seems to aggravate the notion that this money is not something owed to one's fellow peoples for mutual and public good but rather a sort of tuition. Once this connection can be made it only seems natural that market-actor notions about choice and maximization of my individual benefit will be the primary framework for thinking about schooling. This I don't like.

I'm going to stop here, since this was a digression in the first place, but I think that it's a digression that underlies and taints any further discussion about pedagogy or the values of the particular educational systems being proffered, which is why I thought it worthwhile enough to interrupt, I suppose.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Scantron: I would say free-market ideology does matter quite a bit now, of course. But I think people are quite flexible in their ideologies: when market-based solutions get there kid in a good school (read: preferably majority white and middle class) then terrific. When they don't, then it's back to "I want my neighborhood school back!" type arguments. I see your concern that choice models could lead to a balkanization of curriculum, and to some extent we have seen that on the margins already, with Afro-centric charter schools in places like Chicago being the most famous (or notorious examples). But I think so long as there are market and public sector forces (as well as the forces of tradition) in place that incentivize liberal arts education--entrance requirements for colleges, demands by parents for an education similar to what they received, textbook and testing markets, federal government requirements of common standards, etc. then I'm not too worried about things getting much more differentiated than they already are. Your note on the Greeks was extremely helpful. I'll be following up in due course.

Sheriff: Some very thoughtful remarks on the relationship between the way we fund public schools and the ideas parents have about how they should operate. What I think is a particularly important point you raise is that it's not necessarily about equalization of funding that matters--increased state and federal funding over the last thirty years has done much to narrow the gap between urban and suburban schools, though the gap of course remains--but rather where that funding comes from and how it gets us to think about our responsibilities to one another. The "we're all in this together" notion of public schooling is difficult to pull off when you've got a powerful bloc of suburban voters, veterans of numerous "tax revolts" and individualistic ideas of what constitutes community. Seems to me the solution to this problem is to either create more consolidated districts (again, my Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenberg examples) that just expand district boundaries and force people to embrace a broader community; or to eliminate the districts altogether, in the libertarian spirit: give everyone equal voucher amounts and let them decide where their kids will go to school.

11:39 AM  

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