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Now Can We Talk About Standards?

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As most of us were still wrapping our heads around the news that Old Man Trump (note: I will refer to him henceforth as "Old Man Trump" in an homage to the great Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, who once wrote a song about Old Man Trump's old man to protest what he saw as discriminatory housing practice favored by Fred Trump, Donald's dear old dad) named billionaire school choice activist Betsy DeVos to run the U.S. Department of Education, another piece of news trickled out. It is that DeVos apparently wasn't even Old Man Trump's first choice for the job. And, no, it wasn't Ben Carson either, surprisingly. It was Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University. 

There is much that I could say about that, but I'll leave it at this: the common link that connects Falwell and DeVos is not free-market school choice activism or even billionaire status, though I'd be willing to bet Falwell has no trouble meeting his bills every month. It is ardent—some would say extreme—religious conservatism. This choice was clearly intended to signal Trump's commitment to opening fresh new fronts in the culture war. He's not just interested, apparently, in school choice. He's interested in school choice for a purpose, and that purpose appears to be to open private, religious schools to a flood of public money while convincing voters that this isn't about religion or culture at all but is, instead, all about "freedom." The freedom, as it happens, for parents to choose to have their children educated without knowing anything about the quality of the education their children receive in educational terms. 

That's a complicated sentence, so let me rephrase it. If Trump's school choice boondoggle is successful in any form—and, unlike some others, I believe this is very much a possibility—then parents will be given some kind of voucher by the government they can use to send their kids to school anywhere at all. And given that we already do a woefully inadequate job of providing evidence of the value of education to the public in either public or private school settings, there's a really good chance that they'll be spending money in the dark. Worse, they'll be susceptible to marketing techniques that would put Trump University to shame. Take it from someone who endured five hours of marketing presentations from people selling health insurance last month: it's easy to be persuaded by marketing materials without knowing exactly what it is that you're buying. Especially when you don't know exactly what it is that you're buying.

All of which leads me to ask: now is it okay if we talk about the importance of establishing educational standards?

I say this knowing full well that some readers will dismiss the question as irrelevant. What do standards have to do with vouchers? Why we should force everybody to do learn the same thing in the same way? Why do you hate freedom?

The answer to the last question is easy, so I'll take it first: I don't. I love freedom. I love it so much that I want to protect it for everybody, not just the ones with the ability to take the few open spots in the most prestigious schools, or for the kids who look like me. I think every kid has a right to get a good education, and I can't see any good reason for denying that. I see standards as an engine of equity and a guarantor of quality and safety. Would you eat meat that wasn't stamped safe to eat or had an expiration date that passed a month ago? Would you eat in a restaurant that failed an inspection? Would you drive a car with a one-star crash safety rating? I'll bet you wouldn't.

But education isn't like those things, people say. It's not a meal or a restaurant or a car. Quality varies, and any attempt to nail it down demeans the whole process. I'll meet you halfway on that. Quality does vary, and it's not always easy to nail down. Part of the reason, of course, is because we've never come to any agreement on what constitutes a good education. Does that mean we should never attempt to define it? Quality varies in your local restaurants too, but everybody at least has a right to know that any restaurant they choose has passed inspection and is serving food that is safe to eat. Moreover, it's absurd to think that submitting to such inspections somehow prevents chefs from being creative or producing outstanding meals. Trying to define what's good and what isn't doesn't demean the process of figuring out what's good. It enriches that process, and improves the final product.

Fine, fine, you say. So what does this have to do with vouchers? At the risk of overextending the metaphor, think of these vouchers like coupons—coupons that you can take to any restaurant in town to get a free meal. Where would you go?  What if the coupon could cover the entire cost of a meal at some restaurants, but only part of the cost of a meal at others? I think a lot of us would like to believe that we'd go for the cheapest meal possible, but consider a couple of factors. First, what if the cheaper meal is cheap because it's of low quality? Maybe I could buy more food with my voucher at McDonald's than I could at the local Irish pub, but we all know about the nutritional value of the Big Mac. (We might also know the nutritional value of a pint of Smithwick's, but that's another issue.)

And consider this: if everyone had a coupon that would almost certainly affect the cost of the meals available to all of us. It might also affect their quality. But still most people with the means to do it would probably use the coupon to pay part of the cost of a more expensive, and presumably better, meal. And those restaurants would probably fill up quickly.

We're still talking about food here, people—and, frankly, it's making me hungry—but there's a point to all of it. Consider that a meal is like an education in at least one sense: you don't know how good it is until it's gone. And everyone's taste is different. What I like may not be what you like. Also, if a lot of people choose a certain restaurant it fills to capacity quickly. Pretty soon people have to be turned away. What you want is for people to have a variety of options to choose from, tailored to their tastes but also of such high quality that people will occasionally branch out and try something new. The best restaurants don't usually focus on just one thing; they offer surprises, rotate their menus, introduce patrons to new tastes. Still, their ability to meet basic expectations is what makes all of this possible. It doesn't matter how creative you are if the food you're serving is unsafe to eat.

I think I've taken this about as far as it can go, but you get the point: we have examples right around us that can help us make sense of what it might mean to allow unlimited choice in a world where anything goes. Betsy DeVos has already helped create that kind of educational environment in Detroit. Is this the model we want for the rest of America? 

I don't think we do, no matter how much we think we do. The bottom line is that creating more opportunities for choice without making any attempt to establish a baseline of quality is not just irresponsible, it's unconscionable. Anyone paying attention knows that we live in a society increasingly characterized by gross inequality. To write blank checks to parents in an environment characterized by inequality and to do it, especially, in a world in which fact checking is dismissed as "elitist" and "out of touch" and where presidential aides go on the radio to announce that facts are just opinions is problematic, to say the least.

I'm not reflexively opposed to choice in education at all—I don't know anyone who is. But I am opposed to social engineering that makes our society less equitable and exacerbates inequality. I don't think there is any doubt that unregulated school choice would do precisely that. 

So I guess I'll just ask the question again: now can we finally have a real conversation about standards?

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