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Deborah Meier, Libertarian?

Robert Pondiscio of Democracy Prep writes again to Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deborah,
One of the joys of sharing this space with you is how often you surprise me, acknowledging last week, for example, that in some ways you are "exceedingly conservative." Who'd have thought it? One of the fascinations of education for me is the ways in which policy and practice can challenge our ideologies. My liberal credentials were in pretty good order until I became a South Bronx schoolteacher. As I have argued since, progressive means may not be the best way to achieve progressive ends.

An education manifesto crossed my desk last week and perhaps yours, too. As I read the following words, I thought you might agree with them: "To some, accountability means government-imposed standards and testing, like the Common Core State Standards, which advocates believe will ensure that every child receives at least a minimally acceptable education. Although well-intentioned, their faith is misplaced," the missive continued.

"True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child's needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value."

I'm pretty sure you share the author's take on the limits of "government-imposed standards." How about parents empowered to vote with their feet? As a lifetime champion of democratically led small schools, I can easily imagine your model growing when parents are free to choose their child's school, and thriving when freed from operational standards and mandates.

These words were from an open letter in the National Review over the signature of leaders of the Cato Institute, the Friedman Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Center for Education Reform, and others.

I'm strongly biased toward school choice. I defer deeply to parental prerogative. Wonks can argue until they're blue in the face whether it "works," but that's sometimes beside the point. I picked my daughter's school; I want you to be able to choose yours. Choice is an intrinsic good. Yet the authors' call found me bumping up against the limits of my orthodoxy.

Why am I not quite ready to act upon the argument that choice, not standards, is the best guarantee of excellence? Part of it is my own experience. I taught in the lowest-performing school in New York City's lowest-performing district. There was choice available to the families we served. The original South Bronx KIPP Academy was a few blocks away. There were other charter schools and good Catholic schools, too. In my school, meanwhile, our principal knew all the families by name, spoke fluent Spanish, and parents appreciated that we were respectful and nice to the kids. Our motto was written in big, bold letters on the playground wall: "Job Number One: Keep Everyone Safe!" Job Number Two, directly under it, read "Get a Good Education."

Those were the de facto standards that arose at my school. One hundred percent of our students were safe. Sixteen percent could read on grade level.

Safety is a legitimate, defensible choice. But if I'm candid, I must confess I was often disappointed with the education choices my students' families made. When it was time to choose a middle school, most of my families chose the not-very-good middle school across the street simply because it was closest and therefore safest. One year a nearby school on New York City's list of "persistently dangerous schools" was suddenly a popular choice. When I asked why, it turned out that at a parent information meeting, a school official promised every student would get a laptop computer.

My friend Kathleen Porter-Magee followed up with a piece at the Fordham Institute's Common Core Watch blog arguing that choice and standards need each other. "Critics are right when they argue that not all parents want the kind of no-excuses, data-driven instruction that has become the norm," she argues. In Washington, D.C., she notes, "there are real choices: Montessori charters, Catholic charters, Hebrew immersion, Reggio Emilia, No Excuses, and on. All are held accountable to the same standards, but real innovation is not only possible—it is encouraged and thriving. In fact, that innovation is possible not in spite of the standards but because of them."

I don't love standards; I'm a curriculum guy. But I'm inclined to agree with Kathleen. At the risk of sounding paternalistic, the opportunity for fraud, abuse, and yes, profiteering seems too great. Having standards to which all publicly funded schools are held accountable doesn't strike me as an undue burden.

My friend Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute, one of the authors of the letter in the National Review, argues persuasively that "markets have proven more effective than mandates" in improving outcomes for low-income children. He cites the example of the small, private schools that have sprung up in desperately poor parts of India, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and elsewhere as documented in his own research and James Tooley's fascinating book, The Beautiful Tree.

I have insisted I'm invested only in outcomes, not systems, so I should simply favor what seems likely to achieve the best results for the most kids. But I find myself reluctant to advocate for a standards-less system. Look, I want kids to learn how to read. As I quipped to Andrew, I don't want to be the one to say, "Too bad, kid. Your parents chose badly. I'll tell you how the free market works as soon as you're done cutting my lawn."

Tell me where you place yourself on these issues, Deb. You clearly are uncomfortable with free market ideology in education. But you have spoken of your preference to have schools accountable directly to their stakeholders. An education market driven purely by choice would probably result in a lot more schools like those you champion. So are you not merely a conservative, but a libertarian, too?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio

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