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Occupy School Choice?

Last week, I had an exchange with the Fordham Institute's "school choice czar" Adam Emerson, in which I argued that Emerson showed an unfortunate disregard for the legitimate concerns of parents and taxpayers in Zachary, Louisiana, in upbraiding them for not opening their schools to the state's new voucher program. I didn't mean to pick on Emerson in particular. I fear that too often even putatively "conservative" advocates for school choice slip into self-righteous rhetoric that dismisses or denigrates the concerns of middle-class or suburban households.

Indeed, the most telling reaction to the back-and-forth was over at the Daily Kos, a prominent progressive website, where plthomasEdD wrote, "Hess doesn't see a problem with families putting themselves and their children first, including protecting their home values." The peculiar thing was that he saw this stance as some kind of slip, deeming the column "valuable not for his intended messages, but for what [Hess] reveals about education reformers committed to choice and competition."

Of course, a choice supporter believes that families will put the needs of their own children first. Otherwise, the whole thing kind of breaks down. Indeed, I find such behavior normal, commendable, and healthy. There's nothing secretive here. I expect and hope parents will do their best to advocate for their own children, and to lawfully protect their homes, neighborhoods, and communities.

Look, let's stipulate that "zip code" schooling is unfair. It is unfair that students born to some parents go to terrific schools, while students born to others are trapped in awful schools. It is also unfair that some children are raised in households with two parents, or filled with love, or that enjoy access to fresh air and green fields... and that others are not. No argument here. The question is what to do about it. There are two different responses: the Tocquevillian and the Occupier.

A Tocquevillian recognizes that fairness is not the only value that Americans cherish. Parental love for their progeny is another. Diligence, thrift, and responsibility are others. The trick, of course, is that parents who work hard, play by the rules, and love their kids will inevitably give their children advantages. Indeed, perhaps the most admirable reason that parents work hard is precisely so that their children will have better lives than they did. In other words, there is a real and unavoidable tension between encouraging virtuous adult behavior and creating inequities for kids.

The Tocquevillian respects these competing values. He acknowledges them and crafts policies and rhetoric with that in mind. He doesn't view school choice as a redistributive exercise or discuss it in the language of class conflict. Rather, he embraces charter schools for creating options for those who wish to attend them and voucher plans for permitting students to escape their current school in favor of other schools that wish to enroll them. He sees virtual schooling as offering options without forcing uncomfortable change on hesitant families. These are all win-win scenarios. Moreover, they promise to gradually weaken the relationship between zip code and school and to subtly alter attitudes and norms regarding that relationship. This is all to the good. Indeed, such an incremental, step-by-step course is likely to win broad support, avoid alienating suburban voters and legislators, and produce a stable, socially beneficial outcome.

Then there's the approach of an Occupy Wall Streeter. Thrilled to have identified another injustice and by his own goodness, the Occupier has no time to worry about competing values, incentives, unanticipated consequences, or bourgeois concepts like "property." He has no time for win-win solutions. Instead, he is excited, right here and right now, to denounce inequity and insist that everyone else do the "right thing." The Occupier loves heated rhetoric and is all too ready to attack parents watching out for their kids and their home values as selfish and mean-spirited.

It's a free country and choice advocates are free to say what they like, but the Occupy school choicers are likely to alienate middle class and suburban families and convince them that school choice is part of a radical redistributive agenda rather than a slice of Americana (just recall what careless advocates and troubling program design did to busing). The Occupier's is the bitter, divisive language of the ineffectual fringe. That's because most Americans think ideas like filial love, property, hard work, and incentives are good ones, and actually incorporate those into their notions of what's "fair."

Americans have shown a consistent willingness to try to combat unfairness, so long as they feel their concerns and the values they cherish are respected. School choice advocates would do well to keep that in mind.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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