Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Getting beyond insults in the school choice debate

My latest Culture Con column in WI Interest can be found here. In it, I suggest that attitudes toward school choice tend to be rooted in pre-existing attitudes about the value of individual choice, diverse approaches and the competence of public entities to discern the best possible way to deliver a service.

Madison school board member Edwin Hughes doesn't like it. He writes a post claiming to get beyond "Esenberg and insults" by dismissing my column as "smug," "simplistic" and deserving of "mockery."

I'd hate to see how Mr. Hughes conducts himself when he isn't so committed to "civility" and "engagement"and "getting beyond insults."

He shouldn't be so sure of himself. The point of my column was this: Voucher opponents accept, in an almost theological way, that an entity called "choice" schools do "no better" than public schools and drain money" from public schools. There are numbers that support this view, but there is also substantial evidence - contained in the most comprehensive evaluation of the program - that choice schools do achieve, by some measures, superior results.

More fundamentally,  it makes little sense to view "choice schools" as a monolithic entity. They are not a "system" and consist of a variety of diverse schools adopting very different approaches. Some of very good. Others are not.

Once you recognize that the facts are confounded and the results differ from school to school, the question becomes whether low income families should be empowered to choose what might, for them, be a better option.

Mr. Hughes thinks not and apparently rejects my suggestion that his view could possibly be based on any of his foundational beliefs about the way in which the world works and his assessment of the relative merits of centralized and collective - versus diverse and individual - decision-making. His argument consists of two moves.

The first is to provide his readers with a - I'm sorry - rather sophomoric caricature of my point. He thinks I'm calling choice opponents grey apparatchiks reminiscent of Apple's old "drones" commercial from 1984 while choice proponents are free thinking rebels ready to rock and roll. This, he says, "invites mockery" and it might if that's what I said. But it's not. It is reframing my argument in this cartoonish way that is itself "simplistic."

Let me try to put it in a way that Mr. Hughes might like more. Choice opponents tend to place greater value on equality of result and less on individual liberty. They are more optimistic about  the ability of whomever we choose to recognize as elites to solve problems and less optimistic about the likelihood that solutions will emerge from something approximating a market, i.e., a diversity of approaches in which some succeed and others fail. They are more favorably disposed to a common secularity than what will necessarily be a more diverse (and potentially divisive) collection of faith based approaches. They are more optimistic about democratic decision-making and less concerned about the ways in which public choice theory tells us that such processes (particularly in an area like education) can be captured by special interests.

His second move is to offer a defense of the very philosophical predispositions that I suggest characterize opposition to school choice.

He begins, for example, by saying that choice opponents are concerned with quality of education and the way in which it is delivered.  Well, yes, so do we all. But "caring" cannot in and of itself tell us whether the best way to "care" is to confer, as far as low income families are concerned, an effective monopoly on a single entity.  To believe that a monopoly can offer the best option for everyone is to place a great deal of faith in the capacity of the monopolist to choose wisely.

In other words, as I said, one must be more favorably disposed to centralized decision-making.

He then makes the "diversity" gambit. It is, he says, important for students to be compelled to attend school with a diverse collection of classmates by which I take it he means students who look different but will be socialized to - at least in some ways that ought not be questioned - think alike.

Perhaps. But, at least in Milwaukee, both choice schools and public schools are predominantly minority and low income. They may differ in that a large number of choice schools incorporate (within certain limitations) a faith based component to their instruction. In other words, the distinctive is not that the choice schools do not "look like" their public school counterparts as much as it is that they think differently.

Again, whether you think this is a good or bad thing will depend on whether you value, for low income persons, the ability to choose a faith based alternative distinct from the secular monoculture of public education.

Finally, Mr. Hughes challenges the notion that parents can decide what is best for their children. The view that they know best is, he says, "magical thinking." Families, in the considered view of Edwin Hughes, don't value diversity (or at least the same type of diversity) as much as Edwin Hughes, They ought not be empowered to make these "poor" choices.

Whether or not he is right, we are left with, again, with the very philosophical divide that I identified. Mr. Hughes thinks that centralized and collective decision-making will more properly value diversity (as he defines it) and make better educational choices for children than their parents will.

Of course to describe a philosophical divide does not tell us who has the better of the argument. Mr. Hughes defends his position by relying on a 2007 "study" by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute which, strictly speaking, was not a study at all and had more to do with the impact of choice on public schools than its value to the families who participate in the program.

The 2007 WPRI publication collected no data on what was actually happening in Milwaukee. It simply took a national data base on the educational involvement of families and extrapolated it to Milwaukee based on the socioeconomic characteristics of Milwaukee families. It was, strictly speaking, nothing more than a calculation. If low income and minority families in Milwaukee behave like low income and minority families nationally, the calculation showed, then, based on certain assumptions, very few would engage in informed decision-making regarding their children's education.

It was an interesting and thought provoking exercise but one with an obvious limitation. It is not at all clear that national findings would extend to a city with a relatively longstanding and actively promoted choice program. It is possible that the existence of a greater array of educational choices would change the incentives and capacity of parents to engage in the informed and engaged decision-making that would otherwise not happen.

Beyond that, the fact that only a subset of families will exercise a choice tells us precisely nothing about whether they ought to have the opportunity to make one - unless you entertain a presumption against individual choice and a diversity of alternatives  in education.

Mr. Hughes argues that education is an "experience good" which is a fancy way of saying that it is something that consumers have a difficult time evaluating before deciding whether to buy it. But, again, the extent to which you think something is that type of good (many things are difficult to be sure about before you try them) and whether, having decided it is, you think that people should have someone else choose for them reflects very philosophical divide I'm concerned with.

My suggestion to Mr. Hughes is that he read - if he hasn't - Jonathan Haidt's provocative study of political reasoning, The Righteous Mind. While I don't agree entirely with Haidt (I think he mischaracterizes conservatives and diminishes the way in which foundational judgments reflect assessments of empirical facts), he does marshall some impressive evidence that the way we think about discrete political questions reflects a priori judgments about the relative weight to be according competing values and (at least, I think) assessments about how the world usually works.

Thus, we often form a position first and then look for evidence to support it. This does not mean that we can't be persuaded to change our minds. It does not even mean that we are hopelessly biased and unthoughtful. What it does mean is that understanding our opposing numbers may mean appreciating that they weigh values a bit differently than we do (even if we share the same ones) and have differing views about what works best.

It is then that we can get beyond insults.

Update: When initially posted, I identified Mr. Hughes as "Edward," I am informed that his name is Edwin. My apologies to Mr.  Hughes and thanks to a reader for the correction.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin


Tom said...

There are very bad choice schools and there are very bad public schools. The difference between the two is the very bad choice schools close, while the very bad public schools stay open.

Hard to see how the latter system is preferable.

David Blaska said...

Ed Hughes is actually a moderate when it comes to Madison school board members. His philosophy, however, is the standard progressive's conceit that he knows what is best for children even if their parents do not. At least, he was able to write a blog without the reflexive reference to Koch Brothers or the DeVos.